Nothing reminds me more of the South of France than lavender. Once I visited Provence in the summer, specifically the town of Grasse, where I was hit by blooming lavender for the first time.
Perfume makers there still tend vast fields of lavender with ardor, just as they did hundreds of years ago. The southern sun and pot-bellied bees kiss blue lavender buds that captivate the nose long before the eye. As you drive the country roads you are surrounded by a bounty of scent.
But today – in the streets of New York City – above the odor of soiled subway riders, spoiled garbage, and smoking tailpipes, lavender offers a breath of freshness in Union Square’s Farmer’s Market.
The flower vendor stood alone with over 100 bunches, freshly picked. The pale blue skin beneath his sleepy eyes matched the flowers clinging to a single stem in his fingers. Pulling a handful of powdery buds from their stem, he crushed them and sprinkled the living perfume into my palm.
But what does lavender have to do with food? Most people known lavender as a masculine scent because its essential oil is used in the production of men’s toiletries. With its crisp, clean fragrance, it has been valued through the centuries for its ability to calm and relieve stress. In fact, the Romans, who knew a thing or two, used crushed lavender in their baths.
The word “lavender” comes from the Latin term to bath or “lavare”. But can lavender also calm the belly? Apparently so. In folk medicine, it is known as an anti-spasmodic, anti-depressant, and is known to calm the digestive tract of people with nervous bellies. Now, I’m not saying that you should down spoonfuls of the stuff, but I have used dried organic lavender much as you would any dried herb in your kitchen.
Found in some versions of the famous dried herb mixture from France, “Herbes de Provence” is made by combining the buds with dried rosemary, oregano or thyme. Ideal for roasting chicken, baking savory tarts, and flavoring slow-cooked sauces or hearty braises, herbes de provence is a great way to give it a try. I’ve even enjoyed lavender steeped in rich custards that are the base for creme brulee or creme Anglaise. Lavender scented cookies and candies make a lovely pair with hot beverages at tea time. I’ve even seen a recipe for lavender cheesecake. While lavender generously lends its fragrance to food, it can also add delightful contrast. With notes of freshness and astringency, it can break up and lighten heavy rich or bland foods, which would otherwise seem oppressive or monotonous.
I’ve never created a recipe of my own with lavender, I thought as I paid the vendor and gathered a large bunch into my bag already brimming with other summer vegetables. I wondered if my husband felt like pork tonight? Pork has been a staple for him growing up in a family of pig farmers, but I’m not sure how he felt about lavender. Well, I’m always up for the challenge and Mr. Guinea pig never says no.
We’ll have a lean pork roast, with mustard, sage, and fresh lavender. I chose the 3-pound roast, figuring that leftovers would make a great sandwich. Chilled Provencal Rose, the perfect choice, along with my tomato salad with marinate zucchini served on arugula.
This sounds like a fancy meal, but it was effortless as I smeared the pork, seared it in a hot skillet, sprinkled with herbs, and into the oven while I prepared the salad. My husband looked impressed, but I couldn’t take credit, it’s the fresh lavender that made it special. He cocked his eyebrow inquisitively, smiled, shrugged, and just kept on eating instead of taking a break to ask what the new flavor was. There was time to sort that all out with a filled belly and an empty plate.