Writing to you on the road this week as I journey through Europe, blessed with the opportunity to visit the breath-taking lavender fields of Southern France.
And although I am completely in love with New Zealand, my home of almost 31 years, I am really enjoying the deep cultural connection I have with Europe, entwined with the many memories of growing up in small villages in the countryside of France and Germany.
I was in Barcelona last week for a full-on conference on Integrated Medicine. There was much new health research presented and a lot to take in.
Now, with all that behind me, I get to take things a little slower and enjoy the relaxing vista of spectacular natural lavender fields.
Of course, there are the famous 1,000 hectare farms in the southern Provence which are impressive, but that is not what draws me in. We are looking for the small fields and artisan producers; co-operatives with distilleries that serve the communities.
The hidden organic fields of the French Haute Provence
We find lavender fields interrupted by patches of bush, olive trees, oak trees and plantations side by side. I can also see other aromatic plants like Oregano, Thyme, Clary Sage and Walnut trees.
We find this in the very undiscovered Haute Provence and French Southern Alps.
As I arrive here, the roads get smaller and smaller and I pass little villages clustered on the hills. The hot summer air literally begins to fill with scent.
Lavender is very distinct, but the sharp euphoric notes of Clary Sage also hit my nose and I feel my heart skip with happiness. What a perfect welcome for the essential oil doctor!
They say it was a brilliant year, with the perfect amount of rain and sun, and the right balance of heat and cool in the summer nights.
The colour of the lavender fields are truly sublime and if you have not put it on your bucket list yet, I recommend you do. Soft purple hues blending with the red-pink of Clary Sage, punctuated by bright fields of sunflowers reaching for the sun.
Mostly the fields are around 5-10 acres. The hardy lavender grows on rocks, limestone rocks, and, incredibly, it produces the best scent and colour when growing on this poor soil where you’d be hard pushed to grow any vegetables.
When the fields look less than perfect that is actually a good sign. The presence of some weeds here and there tells us that these are organic fields - no weed killer has been sprayed before harvest. The organic farmer weeds it manually when unwanted plants show themselves, and before they go to seed.
In the patchwork of fields that hold different lavender species, it is easy to observe the different colours of Lavender True, Lavandula Officinalis, and Lavender Spike, Lavandula Latifolia.
The sound ot the bees was perhaps the most surprising thing of all - such a healthy organic balance where millions of bees hum a concert that is so loud you can hardly hear yourself talking!
Distillation of organic Lavender Essential Oil
The distillery I head for is right at the top of the valley with the beautiful mountains surrounding it, almost like an amphitheatre.
More feasting for my eyes.
The farmers here either contract to the distillery to distill their own plants, or they have a share in a co-operative. The latter arrangement has a greater attraction long-term, so the French are very partial to this business structure.
Distilleries are usually quite functional buildings where access and practicalities are vital for success. Then, apart from the hardware, the most essential part of any distillation is the distiller himself (mainly men work in this role).
Just like in the wine industry, where the wine-maker makes not only the all-important decisions at the extraction site, the distiller also coordinates the actions of the harvest.
The distiller decides when to cut, (predicting the weather), manages the machinery for cutting and oversees transport which is often shared by the co-operative. A lot to consider.
Rain had been forecast for the day we arrived and initially there was no-one there. But then one farmer, who took the risk to harvest, arrived with his crop for distillation.
It was delivered and spread out over night for airing. If it had been left in the big pile, it would start composting and the Essential Oil would have a poor fermented element to the smell.
Early the next morning they were ready to load the vat and start the distillation process which would take several hours. The distiller predicted that no further lavender will be harvested due to the incoming thunderstorm.
True enough, I passed the night with lighting so bright it kept me awake. And the thunder rolled and bounced off the mountains relentlessly.
I was glad to see the sun rise so I could get up.
Our wonderful French breakfast with cafe latte, croissants, pain au chocolate and homemade apricot jam was finished early. I was soon on my way to go and help fill the still.
The aim was to compact it with as little air left inside as possible and the heavy weight (around one ton) was used to press everything down over and over again.
The vat can take around one ton of plant material. Once full, the lid goes on and it’s time to monitor and access the temperature. This is the waiting time…
Again, the skills we see are not to be underestimated. The decision when to open the valves to let the steam (accompanied by the essential oils) out into the condenser, is crucial to a successful process.
If opened too early, the oil will be bitter, and the floral water which is also collected will be useless. Opened too late and the product might be over-cooked.
So, slowly, slowly, some steam was put through the condenser and the oil separated. It was then collected at intervals and skilfully extracted, collecting both Essential Oil and Floral Water / Hydrosol.
The timing for the extraction process is also of vital importance. Too much time can destroy the oil and floral water.
So much was hanging on this one man. He stood patiently with a smile and managed it all as the skilled, competent craftsman that he is, knowing his own worth.
And then it finished. The process stopped, the lid opened, and hot fragrant steam filled the room.
Boiling chains were hooked up with the hydraulic lift to remove the material and drop it outside in a container, where it would be spread on the fields for mulch and fertiliser.
The happy farmer, who watched and assisted, walked away with his container filled with his own Lavender oil. He was happy with a job well done.
Off I went to find more delicious scents at the local market and to sample just a few of the culinary delights!
I love my work!
Medicinal-grade essential oils must be 100% pure. At Absolute Essential we use certified organic or wild grown (sustainable) plants to produce our oils and all extraction processes are strictly controlled to produce the best quality oil with a maximum purity and therapeutic value. See more at Absolute Essential