No smell of cow patties flitted through the air, thank goodness. After all, just before lunch who wants to contemplate biting into a sandwich perfumed with the stench of manure?
We stood on the knoll about the Maison Beliveau and watched the black-furred cattle, including two hefty bulls, running down the hill, hell-bent on cozying up to some people foolish enough to walk into the pasture. The animals no doubt hoped for a morsel of food other than the grass surrounding them. A cool wind blew from the south and hinted not of cow patties, but rather of the promise of the day, a day devoted to eating and learning about growing and cooking with lavender (Lavandula dentate or Lavendula angustifolia).
Long a lover, and occasional grower, of lavender, I’d never really used it in cooking except in the herbal mixture of Herbes de Provence. But I agreed with belle-lettrist Madame de Sévigné , who wrote to her daughter Françoise:
Elle est divine, je m’en enivre tous les jours, j’en ai dans ma poche. C’est une folie comme le tabac : quand on y est accoutumé, on ne peut plus s’en passer. (It is divine, I can get drunk on it every day. I keep it in my pocket, it’s like tobacco : when you are used to it you can’t do without it.)
Knowing her background, the word “divine” seems like a natural. Madame probably needed that lavender. It’s tough, no doubt, being the granddaughter of a saint (really, she was! Read about her grandmother: St. Jane Frances de Chantal).
Walking between two rows of lavender, our legs brushing against the dark green leaves, we inhaled the odor of the herb and the mountain air so clear and fresh here in southwest Virginia. And, like the cattle, we knew where to head for food!
At each place setting inside the large barn-like dining room stood large glass dessert flutes, filled with dark purple grapes smothered in a thick white creamy sauce. With a mouthfeel and taste reminiscent of mascarpone, the sauce turned out to be sour cream mixture with cream cheese and sugar, spiked with a hint of lavender.
Then chicken-salad sandwiches appeared, sided with raw broccoli salad and marinated asparagus spears nestled inside whole romaine leaves.
Dessert featured lavender-infused whipped cream on top of blueberry pound cake, the lavender taste so subtle as to be ghost-like, a figment of one’s imagination.
A quick and dirty dig into my cookbooks and online confirmed something for me when I got home.
Lavender, except for Herbes de Provence, tended not to be a big item in the Western kitchen unless the cook was intent on making certain healing elixirs and waters. That said, Queen Elizabeth I liked her lavender jam, about which Gerard’s Herbal (1636 folio) says:
Conserve made of the floures with sugar, profiteth much against the diseases aforesaid [giddinesse, turning, or swimming of the braine, members subject to the palsie] if the quantitie of a bean be taken thereof in the morning fasting.
Most of the literature on lavender from western Europe tends to focus on the medicinal and other properties of the herb, including its usage in repelling insects like fleas and lice, certainly major pests in the days when people bathed rarely (if at all) before being laid out after death.
As in so much of the history of cuisine, the influence of the Arabs shows in the earliest mentions of lavender usage in the kitchen for culinary purposes.
Again, we find some clues in ancient cookbooks.
Used to clarify sheep’s tail fat, lavender appears Medieval Arab Cookery: Papers by Maxime Rodinson and Charles Perry with a Reprint of a Baghdad Cookery Book*, from the Wusla ilā al-habīb, from the Ayyubid-period court (1171 – 1260):
The Method of Clarifying Alya (Sheep’s Tail Fat) [And Definition of Atrāf al-Tīb]
2: definition of atrāf al-tīb, a spice mixture used frequently in cookery, made of lavender, betel, bay leaves, nutmeg, mace, cardamom, cloves, rosebuds, beech-nuts, ginger and pepper, it being necessary to grind the pepper separately.
It’s a long way from lavender fields in Virginia to the Middle East, but it’s just another example of the ties that bind …
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 t. lavender dried buds (flowers)
2 T. confectioner’s sugar
Combine whipping cream and dried lavender. Place in a small saucepan and bring cream mixture to a simmer. Remove from heat, strain lavender buds out over a small glass or stainless steel bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and chill at least 2 hours.
Beat cream and sugar with an electric mixer on medium speed, beating just until soft peaks form. Use immediately. You may also cover the cream and chill it for up to 2 hours before serving. Serve over slices of vanilla-flavored pound cake with blueberries. Or just with berries alone.
*Maxime Rodinson, “Studies in Arabic Manuscripts Related to Cookery,” p. 132.
To be continued …
© 2010 C. Bertelsen