PHOTOGRAPHY BY PATRICK TREGENZA
Transport your cooking with the scent of a Mediterranean summer
Who doesn’t love the smell of lavender and the instant relaxation one gets when instinctively squeezing the flowers between your fingers or breathing in its essential oil? Not only is lavender great for calming the nerves, it also is a drought resistant plant and a magnet for bees—that can extract pollen and nectar throughout the summer, even when other flowers are no longer blooming. When I first saw my home farm, I imagined the driveway and walkways lined with lavender and now, a decade later, I am so happy I made that choice because butterflies hover about while the hummingbirds dart from plant to plant, and the bees, attracted by the sweet scent of lavender, help pollinate my orchard.
Lavender (botanic genus Lavandula) is in the mint family and includes 47 different species that thrive in temperate climates. Lavender is grown as an ornamental plant, for culinary purposes and for essential oils. Lavandula angustifolia—otherwise known as English lavender—is the most cultivated culinary variety and contains the highest quality oils with less of a camphor profile.
French lavender includes Lavandula stoechas, the type with the fatter flower bud and a few open flowers on the top that range from pink to purple, and Lavandula dentata, a wooly leaf variety. French lavender has a lighter scent than English, more reminiscent of rosemary with earthy and rich undertones.
Drought and deer resistant, lavender requires very little maintenance with the exception of shearing off dead flowers and part of the plant once a year to stimulate new growth. Typically lavender has a long summer bloom and some varieties of English lavender bloom twice a year, and if the blooms are not harvested, they can remain on the plant almost year-round!
“It’s such a sensory experience, the way it fills the kitchen with a nice soothing scent.”
Flower farmer Amanda Seely, of Laughin’ Gal Floral, grows three kinds of lavender on her fifth generation 1920s farmstead in Aromas. In her work as a wedding flower designer, she loves to sneak lavender in the back of her brides’ bouquets so they can take a deep breath and ease their nerves on their wedding day. Her favorite is the munstead variety because of its low, compact growing habit and dark purple florets. She loves provençal for culinary purposes and grows sweet lavender Lavandula heterophylla because it blooms year-round.
Lavender can be grown from seed but almost no one chooses to do that due to the germination time—it can take up to six months. You are better off buying a plant at a nursery as they are reasonably priced, or making cuttings from a cultivar you like. If you want to take cuttings, it is best to take them in the summer. Take short 3–4-inch pieces of the soft, pliable growth that comes off the woody stem. Cut each piece with a sharp knife, dip them in rooting hormone and nestle them into a propagation mix that is good for rooting cuttings. Typically propagation medium consists of sand, perlite, coir peat and compost. Cuttings should be watered and kept humid either by using a mini-greenhouse (basically a 2-inch seedling flat with a lid) or place a plastic bag with some holes over each pot.
Each lavender variety has a different spacing requirement. Larger varieties need to be planted 2–3 feet apart. Others, like munstead, can be planted a foot apart.
Lavender thrives in full sun and well-drained sandy soil, and is great for hillside erosion control. You can grow lavender where you can’t grow other things very well as it will even thrive in rocky soil devoid of nutrients. Unless you live in a really hot area, watering lavender is only necessary while plants are getting established, for the first year or so.
When you do water, it is best to do a deep and thorough watering when the plant is dry. You can plant lavender any time of year, but I like to plant it in winter or early spring so that seasonal rainfall can take care of most of its watering needs.
Harvest lavender as soon as the blossoms become a vibrant color—whether they are shades of purple, blue, pink or white—that is when the fragrance is the strongest. Store in a cool, dry place until you are ready to use. Or dry in bunches upside down so that stems dry straight, then pack or process. Sunlight will fade blooms and dust can accumulate on drying bunches if left to hang too long and the scent dissipates if not packed properly. You would not want to use these for culinary purposes.
Each year in early spring or fall, after the flowers have been harvested or are dried, take pruning shears and cut off all old flowers and some of the leaves. I like to use electric shears and make short work of it, making round mounds. The trick is to cut back most new growth. For low growing lavender varieties, trim back the foliage 1–2 inches. For vigorous varieties that grow 3–4 feet high, trim them back by one-third of their growth so they don’t get overly woody. If they are woody, prune out the middle and remove the oldest branches. Even though lavender is a hardy perennial, it does become more woody over time, leading to shorter flowers and less foliage. You will need to replant every five to 10 years in order to have healthy plants.
Lavender has a slightly sweet, floral flavor. The flower buds can be infused and added to many dishes, but the key is to use only a small amount for the flavor to be subtle. For culinary purposes, be sure to use the English variety, as other varieties have a high camphor content that is strong and can be off-putting.
If you purchase lavender petals, please be sure to only use those sold for culinary lavender in edible dishes. Some sold for potpourri may be treated with chemicals. It is best to strip the blooms from homegrown plants, if at all possible. Or purchase from a local farmer or a reputable medicinal herb grower.
Infusing is one of the best methods for making lavender syrup or adding to whipped cream for topping fresh berries.
If you are infusing for a simple syrup, you need 1 cup of sugar per 1 cup of water. Boil water on stove and stir in sugar until completely dissolved. Add 2 tablespoons of lavender buds to the boiling water and boil for 1 minute. Remove from heat and let steep for 30 minutes. Strain out lavender and cool.
Use it to make lavender lemonade mimosas or, my favorite, a Lavender Collins! Just mix a little of the lavender syrup with gin, lemon juice and sparkling water. Lavender syrup goes great with most all clear spirits.
To infuse whipped cream, heat cream on stovetop until simmering, then remove from heat. Add 1½ teaspoons of lavender flowers to the cream (adding 1 teaspoon of fresh mint also pairs well). Strain lavender from the cream after 20 minutes. Cool in refrigerator for 8 hours before whipping.
Lavender shines when paired with lemon and lemon zest. Try making an Earl Grey teainfused pound cake or cookies with a lemon lavender frosting.
Often I add dried lavender to a jar of honey and forget about it on the shelf for a few months, then drizzle it over some soft sheep or goat cheese on a cheese platter.
Lavender can also be added to berry jams and jellies; the best combinations are blackberry or blueberry.
Lavender is sometimes part of the mix in Herbes de Provence, along with traditional French herbs such as dried marjoram, basil, tarragon, savory, thyme, rosemary, basil, fennel and sage. I like using Herbes de Provence in quiches or frittatas. This mix is also great on grilled chicken, lamb or fish or in stews and soups.
Lavender, rosemary, crushed pink or black peppercorns and coarse sea salt would also be a great dry rub for roasts. You can add brown sugar and chili peppers to give it a sweet spicy flavor. This would be great on a lamb leg or beef roast.
I love to add lavender salts to roasted Japanese sweet potatoes, the ones with the white flesh and purple skin and that have a very floral flavor profile. Lavender brings out the floral notes in the potatoes.
BENEFITS OF LAVENDER
French lavender has a high concentration of linalyl acetate which is good for relieving inflammation and pain while killing some bacteria. If you have minor skin lacerations or pain, you can apply the oil.
English lavender tea can soothe the stomach, alleviate stress and anxiety and help you sleep easier. It can also ease a headache when applied to the temples or when a few drops are rubbed together in your hands and inhaled.
Try adding a few drops to your hand sanitizer to keep calm during these unprecedented times.
Honey Lavender Scones
RECIPE: Courtesy Tanya Matta, executive pastry chef, Carmel Valley Ranch
PHOTOGRAPHY: Patrick Tregenza
Lavender puts on a show every summer on farms and ranches from Bonny Doon to Big Sur. The grounds at Carmel Valley Ranch, for example, turn bright purple thanks to more than 7,000 lavender plants that line driveways and cover hillsides. Those fragrant flowers provide plenty of inspiration for executive pastry chef Tanya Matta, who loves cooking with it.
LOCAL FOODS IN SEASON
JULY, AUGUST AND SEPTEMBER
Apples • ****Apricots • Avocados • Blackberries • ****Blueberries • *Boysenberries • Cactus Pears • Figs • ***Grapes • Lemons • **Loquats • ***Melons • Nectarines • Olallieberries • Oranges • Peaches • ***Pears • Plums • Raspberries • Strawberries • Tayberries
Artichokes • Arugula • Basil • Beets • Bok Choy • Broccoli • Cabbage • Cardoons • Carrots • Cauli ower • Celeriac • Celery • Chard • Chicory • Collards • Corn • Cress • Cucumber • Dandelion • Eggplant • Endive • Fava Beans • Fennel • Garlic • Green Beans • Kale • Leeks • Lettuces • Mushrooms • Mustard Greens • Onions • Pea greens • Peas • ***Peppers, Bell • Potatoes • Radishes • Spinach • Summer Squash • Tomatoes • Turnips
Abalone • Halibut, California • Lingcod • Rock Cod (aka Snapper, Rockfish) • Sablefish (aka Black Cod) • Salmon, Chinook/King • Seabass, White • Squid, Market Sole (Dover, Petrale) • Spot Prawns • Tuna (Albacore)
***Comes into season in July
****Comes into season in August
*****Goes out of season in July
All fish listed are rated “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program and are found in abundance in local waters. See seafoodwatch.org for more information