Small lavender fields are woven into the landscape all the through the hills around the town of
These are not the huge commercial concerns of Sault and Valensole, but smallholdings tended in the traditional way. When the sheaves of mauve flowers are picked in July, the distilling begins, sometimes in the field itself, and a heavenly scent is carried on warm evening breezes. Apt.
Last summer I discovered the Distillerie Les Coulets, near the
. As you arrive down a narrow country track, time stands still, and you enter the world of Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. Although Pagnol’s enduring stories were set further south towards the coast at Marseille, the same rural idyll really does seem to linger in every stone and corner. village of Rustrel
An old still, once used to extract the essence from the lavender flowers, stands proudly outside the farm. This is a tiny, family-run business: Christian Borde & Fils. The lavender is grown in the surrounding fields and brought to an unassuming barn for the magic of scent distillation to begin.
The water in the still was bubbling merrily. At the table, one of the much older women known to us simply, namelessly, as Madame, was thrashing the head of a sheath against a box to break off and collect the flowers. Then with one deft sifting motion she showered the ground with any remaining remnants of stalk and leaf and an even more intense cloud of lavender scent exploded into the warm air.
From The Lantern
The alembic still is heated. Then, when steam has risen through the lavender flowers it is pushed up through the pipe that comes out of the top, and then down through the cooling cylinder full of cold water that coils round and round. At the end of the process, the liquid contains the essence of the flower, its oil and scent.
With this essential oil, the Distillerie les Coulets makes different strengths of lavender preparations, from the pure essence which must be diluted – with almond oil, perhaps – before it comes into contact with the skin, to soothing massage oils that Madame Borde makes up and labels in her workshop, which is barely larger than a garden shed.
It’s a truly charming enterprise, and the resultant natural oils have a deep and sweet, almost honeyed aroma, a world away from synthetic mass-produced fragrances.