Every year, on the first Sunday in July in the small hamlet of Ferrassières, a Lavender festival is held. Ferrassières is situated about 10 km north-east of Sault, between Mont Ventoux and Montagne de Lure. The last time I visited the Lavender Festival of Ferrassières was, I think, 13 years ago. It was then a much smaller fête, it has expanded considerably. A programme with the events of the day had been set out, with several walks through the lavender fields, some in the mountains surrounding Ferrassières, others in the fields around the town. There were quite a few stalls selling local produce and, of course, freshly cut Lavender and Lavender products, especially Lavender essential oil. We took part in a test to differentiate between 10 different essential oils. Small strips of paper were provided to dip into the oil. Each bottle was numbered, you then had to match the oil with a list of names. It turned out to be more of a challenge than we thought. Our noses were not quite up to the task, but it was fun to do. A step by step process is followed from taking the first cutting to the harvest, explained by the Ferrassières tourist office:
Cuttings of Lavender or Lavandin are taken in February. Each stem is around 15 cm long. The cuttings are planted into fresh sand and left in a cool room. In April, the cuttings are replanted in the earth so that roots can develop for planting out in the field the following year.
The following year, the rooted cuttings are planted between March and April. This is done manually as well as mechanically. The plants are arranged in rows with a distance of 1.70cm between the rows. The distance between the plants is between 45 to 55 cm, depending on the variety, 10.000 – 12.00o plants per hectare. The weeding between the rows is done 2 to 3 times a year with a special toothed tool. If too much grass is growing between the rows, ploughing may be necessary. Sometimes manual hoeing is necessary depending on what is grown; usually Lavender used for the bouquets are cleaned manually. Harvesting is between July and August depending on the Lavender. The period starts with the cutting by hand, with a sickle, of the Lavender meant for the dried flower industry; Lavandin cut for the bouquet industry is cut later. Each bouquet is dried naturally, first left in the shade for 5 to 6 days, then hung in a hangar for further drying.
The rest of the Lavender and Lavandin is cut by machine a few weeks later. Lavandin is cut after Lavander in late July – August as it flowers later. After cutting the flowers, stalks are left in the sun to dry quickly. They are then taken to the distillery for the extraction of essential oil.
The Lavender oil is produced through steam distillation. 100 kg of Lavender is needed to obtain 0.7 kg of Lavender essential oil. 100 kg of Lavandin produces 1.2 kg of Lavandin essential oil.
Lavender cut for their flowers are put on a vibrating conveyer belt which separates the flowers from the stalks, ready to go into sacs. In Ferrassières they produce 400 kg of Lavender flowers and 800 kg of Lavandin flowers.
After the harvest is over, the dried bouquets are cleaned and put together, 80 g for Lavender and 100 g for Lavandin. They are then stocked in boxes to be sold throughout the year.
There are three native Lavanders growing in the south of France: along the coast Lavandula stoechas, with large petal-like sterile bracts; in the hills behind the coast up to 600 metres altitude, Lavandula latifolia (Spike Lavender), and in the Haute Provence, above 600 meters, Lavandula angustifolia, commonly known as True Lavender or Lavande fine in French. Ever since the perfume industry developed in Grasse, farmers have been gathering Lavender in the hills of the Haute Provence. It was a cottage industry at the time. Families, and later itinerant workers from abroad, would come in July and August to pick the Lavender. Very often the Lavender would be distilled in an Alambic on the side of a field.
At the time Lavender was being picked by hand, it was mostly Lavandula angustifolia (Lavender), but between 600 to 700 meters, cross pollination took place between Lavandula angustifolia (True Lavender) and Lavandula latifolia (Spike Lavender). The gatherers did notice that some Lavenders were taller and the flower spike was larger, but they did not really understand the reasons for this. As science progressed the reasons for the differences were recognised. They named the Lavender created by the cross pollination “Lavandin”, the official name is Lavandula x intermedia. Lavandin, they found out, was sterile and could only be propagated by taking cuttings. Lavandin has an uneven number of chromosomes hence the inability to produce fertile seeds.
It was the perfume industry in Grasse in the 1920’s that encouraged the research in new varieties of Lavandin. Père Abrial, in the 1930’s, produced the first Lavandin that became a success for the perfume industry. The Lavandin carried his name Lavandin ‘Abrialis’. It became so popular that 2/3 of all the fields were planted with this variety. After some time, planting new plants without giving the soil a chance to recover, the plants started to develop an illness: in French it is called ‘dépérissement’, a plant fatigue one could say, and Lavandin ‘Abrialis’ was replaced by a new variety, Lavandin ‘Super’. Nowadays Lavandin ‘Abrialis’ takes up 10-15% of the Lavandin production. After some time, the same illness started to affect Lavandin ‘Super’. The reason for this ‘fatigue illness’ was the lack of crop rotation. When the Lavendin becam e less productive it was just replaced with new young plants. Nowadays several different cereal crops and a green manure crop are planted over a period of four years after digging up an old Lavendin field, before the plants are replaced.
In the years 1972-1975 a new Lavandin was discovered. It was selected by M. Grosso, from Goult in the Vaucluse. It is a very large plant, with a huge flower stalk, producing lots of oil, and in addition it is quite robust. It is called Lavandin ‘Grosso’ after its selector. 3/4 of the Lavandin one sees growing nowadays is Lavandin ‘Grosso’. The plateau of Valensole is almost exclusively planted with the ‘Grosso’ variety. There are also other Lavandin clones, less well known, such as ’41/70′, ‘Special Gregoire’, ’33/70′ and ‘Sumian’, but the previously mentioned ‘Abrialis’, ‘Super’ and ‘Grosso’ are the most important.
Although this development seemed very interesting for the perfume, soap and detergent industry, Lavandin does not have the same medicinal qualities as Lavendula angustifolia (Lavender).
Lavandula angustifolia (Lavender) is produced in the north of the region, in the Diois, around the town of Die and in a southern direction towards Banon; also in the Alpes de Haute-Provence around Digne, Barrême and in the Hautes Alpes, north-east of Gap. It needs an altitude above 600-700 metres to flourish well.
Even today Lavendula angustifolia (Lavender) is normally sown, but a cloned variety of Lavender called ‘Maillette’ is becoming increasingly popular. It does not produce quite the same quality of oil, but is interesting to the industry because of its yield.
The quality of Lavandula angustifolia (True Lavender) essential oil is measured in the amount of principally two constituents in the essential oil named ‘Linalyl acetate’ and ‘Linolol’. The French Pharmacopeia states that it should contain between 35-55% ‘Linalyl acetate’ to be considered Lavandula angustifolia essential oil. Distillers located in high altitudes produce oils of higher ‘Linalyl acetate’ content, not only because wild lavender plants growing at high altitude contain more esters, but also because of the fact that at high altitude the boiling point is lower. Distillation at lower temperatures produces a better oil: instead of 100 degrees Celsius, boiling point is reached at 92-93 degrees Celsius. It could contain up to 70% ‘Linalyl Acetate’.
Essential oil from Lavandin, because it produces more oil, is cheaper than essential oil from Lavandula angustifolia, but it is not of the same quality. For example, oil from Lavandin ‘Grosso’ contains between 28-38% ‘Linalyl acetate’, whereas Lavandin ‘Abrialis’ contains between 20-29% ‘Linalyl acetate’. In addition, all the Lavandins have inherited from their other parent, Lavandula latifolia (Spike Lavander), Camphor in their oil, which makes it less pleasant to smell. Where, in Lavandula angustifolia there are only trace elements of Camphor, in Lavandin ‘Abrialis ‘ it is 7-11% and in Lavandin ‘Grosso’ between 6-8 %.
What makes essential oil of Lavender so unique, is that it has a regulating effect on the nervous system: it balances and harmonises; it adapts itself to conditions, restorative in cases of listlessness or weakness, yet calming in hyperactivity and agitation. In addition, it has fungicidal, preventative and immuno-stimulant qualities, although not as pronounced as, for instance, in ‘Tea Tree’ oil. It can be used neat to treat burns, cuts and spots. Lavandin ‘Abrialis’ is a good anti- infection oil and has sedative properties.
Although Lavender is mostly produced for its medicinal properties, or for the cosmetics industry, Lavender honey has a lovely taste. In Sault, Lavender ice-cream is sold as well as Lavender syrup. The following is a recipe using Lavender flowers:
Ingredients: 175 g unsalted butter; 175 g caster sugar; 3 eggs lightly beaten; 175 g self-raising flour; 1 tablespoon of fresh lavender florets; 1/2 teaspoon vanilla essence; 2 tablespoons of milk; 50 g of icing sugar; 1/2 teaspoon water; a few fresh florets.
Preheat the oven to 180 C. Lightly grease and flour a ring tin or a deep 20 cm round, loose-based cake tin. Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the egg gradually, continue beating till mixture is thick and fluffy. Add the flour, lavender, vanilla essence and milk. Spoon the mixture into the tin and bake for 1 hour. Let it rest for 5 minutes, the turn it out onto a wire rack to cool. Mix the icing sugar with water till smooth. Pour over the cake and decorate with a few fresh flowers. The cake has a lovely flavour.
Bibliography: Lavande et Lavandin . by Christiane Meunier; Aromatherapy – Michel Vanhove; Tourist Information Ferrassieres; Lavender – Tessa Evelegh.