Written for Edible Santa Barbara - Summer 2011



The golden containers of honey that sat on my grandparent’s breakfast table were scented with the wildflowers and lavender of the French Alps. The jars had a distinctive flower pot shape with the name of the ‘apiculteur’ (honey maker) italicized on the side. The honey’s rich flavor matched the deep flaxen color. My pleasure, each time I tasted it was undiminished. Just the aroma of that honey made me smile. I longed to discover where it came from.

I had always heard about the lavender fields of Provence that lay about two hours’ drive away but for myriad reasons each attempt to visit them had been thwarted. Finally many years later I drove on the meandering small roads of Provence, through the picturesque villages of Cotignac and Aups along the narrow D957, around the beautiful Lake of Ste. Croix, through Moustiers-Ste-Marie and up into the hills leading to the Plateau de Valensole in search of those images that had so mesmerized me. Could those fields of lavender really be around the next corner, or the next? The hint of their sweet aroma indicated that they could not be far away and then, upon the crest of a small hill I glimpsed an undulating wave of blue flowers cresting to the horizon. It was magnificent.

I stopped the car, switched off the engine and stepped out into the early July sun, luxuriating in the breathtaking scenery. Juxtaposed with the lavender fields were acres of golden wheat and tens of thousands of giant sunflowers, whose large orbs traced the arc of the sun in the sky. Here were Van Gogh’s paintings come to life. My daughter ran through the tall flowers, each one gazing down on her. The air was perfumed with a multitude of scents and the constant hum of foraging bees. About those bees .. we were suddenly aware of just how many bees surrounded us and decided to leave them to their work in peace. The odd one buzzed through one open window and out another in the car, legs coated with nectar. No wonder the honey tasted so good.

We stopped in one of the tiny villages on the oft windswept plane. A slightly battered signpost by the side of the road had ten different placards nailed to it indicating local perfume distilleries, lavender shops, soap makers, candle makers honey farms and lavender museums.  The signpost a veritable illustration of lavender’s history and the many uses it has been put to.

Historical records indicate that the Egyptians and Phoenicians used it in their mummification process and in making perfumes. The Romans were responsible for its spread throughout Europe and England.  They used it in their baths and for medicinal purposes. The word lavender stems from the Latin ‘lavare’, meaning to bathe. English lavender fields stem from these times. Roman soldiers took it on military campaigns for a variety of uses, including treating wounds. Indeed its healing properties were first recorded in 77AD by a Greek military physician named Dioscordes (who was employed by the Emperor Nero) in his extensive work ‘De Materia Medica. He spoke of its merits in treating skin and throat ailments, indigestion and headaches.

It was also extensively used as a perfume for rooms by brushing it over the floor, to fumigate treatment rooms for the ill, and has long been used as an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory. It is particularly soothing when treating burns and insect bites.

Fifteen hundred years later the plant was in high demand in Queen Elizabeth I’s court. She used lavender in many forms, from perfume to tea, the latter as a remedy for migraines. Lavender has since been used in everything from aromatherapy, soaps, and candles to detergents and medicine. During the First World War, lavender oil was used to dress wounds if medics ran short on antiseptics.

It was first brought to America by the pilgrims in the 1600’s and migrated with them as they crossed the country. California’s Mediterranean climate is particularly suited to the production of lavender, which brings me back to that honey.

Not long ago, strolling through the Santa Barbara farmer’s market I tasted some honey from San Marcus Farms. They have a raw, unfiltered local Wildflower Honey which is a transatlantic echo of the one I ate as I child. I stood with my eyes closed, my taste buds running a culinary film in my mind of honey’s past. I hope that they will have a lavender honey soon.  In the mean time I used the honey with fresh lavender from my garden to make a glaze for a roast chicken, the aroma of Provence and the central coast all rolled into one.

It seems that old recipes containing the plant are common for jellies, preserves, desserts and sweets but its use as a culinary perfume of the savory kind is more recent. Over the last decade dishes with lavender have filtered through all parts of a three course meal. Any quick search on the internet will flood your screen with tasty treats filled with the blue flowers. It pairs well with citrus fruit and mint (it is part of the mint family), thyme and rosemary, hence its inclusion in Herbes de Provence. It’s wonderful paired with goat cheese and tastes marvelous with grilled meats and roasts. The more I cook with it, the more I appreciate the depth of flavor it can give a dish, although you have to be careful not to use too much. As with all perfumes, an excess of it can be overpowering, but used with a delicate hand, it is fragrant and enticing.   

GOAT CHEESE SALAD

Serves 8 people

1 tablespoon mustard

¼ cup olive oil

1 tablespoon vinegar

4 oz. Mache greens

2 oz. mixed salad greens

1 tablespoon lavender flowers – finely chopped

1 tablespoon parsley – finely chopped

1 tablespoon chives – finely chopped

2 sprigs thyme – leaves removed and finely chopped

Zest of 1 lemon

4 oz. goat cheese log

  1. Combine the mustard, olive oil and vinegar in a salad bowl and whisk together to form an emulsion. Place salad utensils over the vinaigrette. Place the mixed greens and mache greens on top of the utensils.
  2. Combine the herbs and zest in a small bowl. Place the goat cheese on a plate and then cover the goat cheese with the herb mixture, rolling the log so that it is completely covered. Refrigerate for 10 minutes. Cut the log into ½-inch slices. Set aside.
  3. When you are ready to serve the salad, toss so that it is well coated. Divide equally on salad plates and top each salad with slices of goat cheese. Serve with a warm baguette or olive bread.

 

ROASTED BEEF TENDERLOINS WITH A HERB AND LAVENDER CRUST

Serves 8 people

2 ½ - 3 lb beef tenderloin

Medium coarse salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons fresh lavender – finely chopped

1 tablespoon lemon thyme – roughly chopped

1 tablespoon chives – finely chopped

1 tablespoon oregano – finely chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon lavender honey

2 tablespoons butter

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Place the tenderloin in a large oven proof dish. Pour a little olive oil over the meat so that it is completely coated. Sprinkle a large pinch of salt and pepper over the tenderloin.
  3. Roast for 15 minutes then reduce the oven to 350 degrees.
  4. In a small bowl combine the fresh herbs with a little olive oil to form a herb paste. Remove the tenderloin from the oven and spoon the herb mixture over the roast, pressing them in gently to adhere to the meat. Return the pan to the oven.
  5. Roast for an additional 25–30 minutes for medium-rare meat. The internal temperature should be 125 degrees.
  6. Remove the meat from the oven and let it rest on a cutting board, covered loosely with for foil for 10 minutes before slicing thinly.
  7. Place the baking dish that held the roast on the stove over a medium flame. Add the butter and honey and as the butter melts, scrape up all the delicious brown bits that will be in the bottom of the pan. Add a touch of hot water if necessary to create a light sauce.
  8. Place the thinly sliced filet mignon onto warm dinner plates and then spoon a little of the pan juices over the slices of filet. Serve with the braised endives.




BRAISED ENDIVES

Serves 8 people

8 endives - halved

Olive oil

Butter

Salt and pepper

  1. Trim the ends off the endives and cut them lengthwise in half. Peel away the outer leaves.
  2. In a large saucepan (large enough to hold all the endive halves in one layer) add a little olive oil and a large knob of butter. Heat until sizzling. Place each of the endive halves in the pan and brown on both sides – approx. 3–4 minutes each side.
  3. Once browned add salt and pepper and enough water to come 1/3 of the way up the side of the endives. Reduce heat and cook slowly for 20 – 25 minutes covered, turning occasionally.  Serve alongside the filet mignon with some of the pan juices from the endives.

 

 LAVENDER POTS DE CRÈME

Serves 8 people

2 ½ cups heavy whipping cream – do not use ultra-pasteurized cream as it will cause the pots de crème to separate

6 springs lavender flowers – coarsely chopped

5 ½ oz sugar (3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon)

Just under 1/3 cup lemon juice

3 tablespoons lavender flowers – coarsely chopped

  1. Place the cream, chopped lavender and sugar in a small saucepan and stir constantly over medium heat until the mixture boils. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Then remove from the heat, add the lemon juice and let stand for 5 minutes. The mixture will start to thicken in the pan.
  2. Divide the mixture evenly amongst 8 small cups or ramekins, cover and refrigerate for 2 hours or until the mixture has set. Serve with a crisp cookie.
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