mercredi 31 août 2011

The Lavender Distillery

A guest post by Deborah Lawrenson

Small lavender fields are woven into the landscape all the through the hills around the town of Apt. These are not the huge commercial concerns of Sault and Valensole, but smallholdings tended in the traditional way. When the sheaves of mauve flowers are picked in July, the distilling begins, sometimes in the field itself, and a heavenly scent is carried on warm evening breezes.

It was this perfume in the wild that provided the first, tentative descriptions in the notebook that evolved into my novel set in Provence, The Lantern. The book tells two interweaving stories, one in the present and one in the past, of the inhabitants of a crumbling farm hamlet in the Luberon. At its heart is a mysterious fragrance, Lavande de Nuit, created by a blind perfumer.

I tried to imagine what it would have been like to work the lavender fields seventy years ago, when the process of picking and extracting the essence would have changed very little for centuries. Then I discovered the Distillerie Les Coulets, near the village of Rustrel. As you arrive down a narrow country track, time stands still, and you enter the world of Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. Although Pagnol’s enduring stories were set further south towards the coast at Marseille, the same rural idyll really does seem to linger in every stone and corner.

An old still, once used to extract the essence from the lavender flowers, stands proudly outside the farm. This is a tiny, family-run business: Christian Borde & Fils. The lavender is grown in the surrounding fields and brought to an unassuming barn for the magic of scent distillation to begin.

The water in the still was bubbling merrily. At the table, one of the much older women known to us simply, namelessly, as Madame, was thrashing the head of a sheath against a box to break off and collect the flowers. Then with one deft sifting motion she showered the ground with any remaining remnants of stalk and leaf and an even more intense cloud of lavender scent exploded into the warm air.

From The Lantern

The alembic still is heated. Then, when steam has risen through the lavender flowers it is pushed up through the pipe that comes out of the top, and then down through the cooling cylinder full of cold water that coils round and round. At the end of the process, the liquid contains the essence of the flower, its oil and scent.

With this essential oil, the Distillerie les Coulets makes different strengths of lavender preparations, from the pure essence which must be diluted – with almond oil, perhaps – before it comes into contact with the skin, to soothing massage oils that Madame Borde makes up and labels in her workshop, which is barely larger than a garden shed.

It’s a truly charming enterprise, and the resultant natural oils have a deep and sweet, almost honeyed aroma, a world away from synthetic mass-produced fragrances.

In the lavender fields…

Men with pitchforks were throwing the stalks and flowers up like hay. Another stood on top of the shaggy load, shouting. Then, when it seemed not another petal could possibly cling on, and the mauve tassles were dripping in every direction, the order was given to sway off to the corner where the alembic had been pulled in by a donkey.

From The Lantern

More lavender, and a glimpse further into the past, can be found in the crossroads village of Coustellet, best known for its Sunday morning market, stands the Musée de la Lavande, the lavender museum, where these evocative old photographs from the 1920s and 30s hang on the walls.

It was back-breaking work, on an arid landscape and under an unforgiving sun at harvest time at the end of July. There were no mechanical aids for the cutting and gathering of the stems, just a hand scythe and a cloth bag worn over the shoulder. Here’s the kind of clothes the women would have worn:

I was given a bag, a small sickle and a starting place. Although he asked my name and nodded, he did not introduce himself. For several days afterwards, until I got to know some of the other girls and exchange information, he would remain simply the man in the waistcoat.

‘Watch out for the bees, and the vipers,’ he said.


‘They hide under the flowers.’

I put on my apron and pulled my cotton scarf up over my head. My eyes were already hurting from the relentless sun.

Nervously, I began. It was tiring work but I was keen to prove myself. The bag grew heavier and bumped against my legs. The scent was heavenly, all around in heavy fumes, so intense that after a while it seemed to pulse.

from The Lantern

Musée de la Lavande: Route de Gordes (D2), 84220 Coustellet
For their website click here:

1 commentaire:

Stephanie a dit…

I really enjoyed this post, thank you both. We're too far north for lavender, but I have seen some fields of it during holidays. It's a wonderful sight. I didn't realise that vipers liked lavender too! I shall be looking out for The Lantern to read.