Expats Ian and Suzie Dick own Lavande de Lherm farm in Midi-Pyrénées, south west France, Janine Marsh investigates their Lavender life in the Lot…
Ian is originally from New Zealand and was a pilot with the Royal Air Force and an ex-Leader of the Red Arrows. Suzie, a ballet teacher and silk painter, is half French and half Irish and has lived in 40 different homes with Ian all over the world before moving to France.
I wanted to know how they came to be running a gorgeous lavender farm and living the good life in the Lot region…
Ian says that in 1991, they were living in Belgium and had a wonderful holiday in a Loire chateau; it made them think that when it came to time to retire, France might be the perfect place for them.
A little over a decade later it was time to take the plunge. They had considered New Zealand but it seemed too far away from their three grown up children in the UK so they decided to investigate south of the Loire “for the good weather”. Suzie suggested they explore the Lot valley – “the Cotswolds in the sun” and in 2003 they retired to a tiny village called Lherm in the Lot. Ian says “We are part of a wonderful community much of which revolves around the little Bar à Trucs run almost entirely by volunteers. The village population is around 250 made up of 11 nationalities! We were immediately made to feel very welcome and ‘chez nous’. We are very proud to say that we are ‘Lhermoise’ and think, quite simply, that we live in Paradise…”
The couple said that having never had a garden before they found themselves with 11 acres of neglected land. Just before they moved to France they had visited Ian’s family in New Zealand where a chance visit to a tiny lavender farm gave them the inspiration to grow lavender themselves. They knew absolutely nothing about it except that it would be wonderful to look on to from their terrace, and they loved the smell of it! Ian says “we joined the New Zealand Lavender Producers’ Association and met other Kiwi lavender growers who pointed us in the right direction and taught us a lot. The learning curve was very steep…”
“There is nothing quite like a field of lavender in full bloom. The power of the colours coupled with the buzzing of countless bees and the fluttering of butterflies has to be one of the most beautiful natural sights to behold. We have become passionate about lavender. The more we learn about it, the more we come to love it. It has been used for 4,000 years, and every day we discover more and more of its wonderful properties. We call it: “Nature’s First Aid in a Bottle” because it has so many uses and no household should be without some”.
Lavender oil is one of the safest essential oils; it can be applied directly to the skin without dilution. Culinary lavender (only of the Lavandula Angustifolia varieties) adds a delicious flavour to recipes like ice-cream, crème brûlée, biscuits and lamb or chicken dishes. Ian says that lavender oil must be kept in dark, glass bottles and stored in a cool place – like wine.
History of Lavender
Ian and Suzie have studied the use of lavender throughout the ages and have some fascinating anecdcotes to share. “Mummies” in Egypt were embalmed using lavender oil 4,000 years ago. At the time of the Black Death in the 14th century, doctors would don a habit and mask that made them look like ducks. Hence the term “quack” was coined to describe a doctor. The beak-like mask was filled with a variety of herbs – particularly lavender – to ward off infection.
The “Vinegar Thieves” were a group of grave robbers who would douse themselves in lavender vinegar before robbing the graves of those who had died of the Plague. Nowadays, if a dog belonging to a hunter in Provence is bitten by a viper, the wound is rubbed with lavender flowers because it is anti-venomous – there are so many stories, it’s hard to keep up…
Lavender distillation process
Apart from learning about lavender, how to grow it, distil it and prepare it, the couple also had to source equipment. They are very proud of the fact that their distillation process is unique in France. They carry out the process in their gorgeous 18th century barn which they also use as a tea-room for guests to the farm where they run lavender tours.
Ian says that “the still (or steam-extraction apparatus) is made in California and they cut the flowers with a Japanese tea-leaf harvester which has been adapted to fit on a ‘chariot’ made in New Zealand. “We have a matchless combination of Kiwi harvester and Californian still!”
Harvesting the lavender
Ian talks about the still with a glint in his eye and loves the whole process of growing, harvesting and distilling. He explains that the calyxes of the flowers (from which the oil comes) must be perfectly dry before they are harvested. If it rains during the harvesting season, then two full days of sun are required to dry out the lavender. It is usually harvested between 10.30 and 11.00 in the morning to give time for the dew to dry out and before the temperature reaches 28˚C.
Their special Japanese tea-leaf harvester is set to cut the lavender so that the stem-to-flower ratio is about equal. Some stem is needed so that the steam can permeate the lavender quickly to ensure that it takes less than 5 minutes for the condensate to flow. The steam carrying the oil travels up a stainless-steel “chimney” – under natural pressure – into a condenser mounted vertically on the boiler. It spills out over a stainless-steel coil cooled by tap water and condenses into pure, essential lavender oil and lavender water. This passes along a tube, from the bottom of the condenser, into a glass separator where the oil floats on top of the water and can be drained off at the end of the distillation. 80% of the oil is produced in the first 10 minutes of a distillation; so the process takes only 15-20 minutes depending on the variety of lavender.
The best time to visit lavender farms in France, to see the lavender blooming at its most colourful and gorgeous, is before the 14 July (Bastille Day). Historically in Provence, the lavender harvest starts on that day and is soon over much to the disappointment of the tourists.
Award winning lavender oil
Ian says that he and Suzie “aim to produce pure, essential lavender oil of the very highest quality, and we go to great lengths to achieve this.” They were thrilled when three of their oils won Silver Awards in 2012 at the New Zealand Lavender Growers’ annual competition. They use the pure, essential lavender oils and lavender water to produce a number of products which are 100% natural. Their soaps are made using asses milk which is renowned for being soft and calming for the skin. Ian laughs when he says “If it was good enough for Queen Cleopatra, it is good enough for us”.
Lavender oil is straw coloured, and the lavender water is colourless. If something has been added the lavender products may be blue or purple in colour.