Swaying fields of purple flowers, with the sweet and heady smell of lavender in the air: it makes me think of Provence, of chilled rosé wine, olives, figs and the deep blue color of the Mediterranean. But what is even more exciting than my daydream of French lavender farms is that if you look closely, you are just as likely to stumble upon a lavender farm stateside as you are in southern France (OK, maybe not just as likely, but the probability is fairly high). Indeed, there are large lavender farms near me on Long Island, in New Jersey, and several in upstate New York, cold climate be damned. I bet if you do a bit of Googling, you, too can find a family-run lavender farm near you, to get your summer lavender fix. Although you may think of the bath and body aisle as the place to find lavender-infused products, the herb is also at home in the kitchen and makes a lovely addition to pastries, cookies, drinks and other dishes.
A Brief History
Native to the Mediterranean, lavender has been used for thousands of years as a medicinal herb and as a perfume, and to a lesser extent as a culinary ingredient. The ancient Romans, Greeks and Egyptians used lavender to scent baths, as a cure for insomnia and as an ingredient for incense. In the Middle Ages in Europe, lavender was considered an aphrodisiac, and was strewn on the floors of sick rooms and castles as a deodorizer (its natural insecticidal properties probably helped, too). In the Medieval period, when the first wave of deadly Black Death epidemics swept through Europe, a concoction called "Four Thieves Vinegar," vinegar infused with herbs (including lavender) and spices was supposed to protect from the plague. During the various Black Death plagues that swept through Europe in the 17th and 18th Centuries, people were instructed to carry with them sweet-smelling flowers and herbs to ward off the disease, amongst them lavender.
- Our most famous gardener-in-chief, Thomas Jefferson, grew English lavender at his Virginia estate, Monticello.
- There is a dizzying array of colors described as "lavender" (originating with the pale-violet color of most common lavender varietals), ranging from "lavender pink" to "lavender gray."
- The song "Lavender Blue" has been recorded by a number of different artists, including Burl Ives. My favorite is this recording by Sammy Turner, which hit the top 40 in 1959.
Lavender is in the mint family, and is a cousin to most of our culinary herbs, including rosemary, sage, thyme, basil, marjoram and oregano (along with mint, of course). It is a low-growing perennial shrub that can grow as high as four feet, usually with silvery-green leaves (different varieties have differently shaped leaves) and flowers that primarily range from purple to pink - although there are cultivars with yellow and white flowers as well. English lavender (Lavendula angustifolia) and hybrids are the most common lavender cultivar used for culinary purposes and to make essential oil, distilled from the flowers. French lavender (L. dententa) and Spanish lavender (L. stoechus) are grown primarily for ornamental purposes.
Lavender is at its peak in the summer months, although some ornamental varieties start blooming in the spring.
Insect pests do generally not bother lavender; in fact, lavender oil is used as a natural pesticide due to its anti-insecticidal properties. Lavender is also fairly drought-tolerant. Weeds are problematic in commercial lavender-growing operations because lavender does not compete well with weeds. Most commercial lavender growers use a combination of mulch and mechanical weed pulling to control weeds in their lavender fields; however, herbicides like glyphosate (aka. RoundUp) may also be used. Check with your local lavender farmer to find out about his or her lavender-growing practices, especially if you plan to use lavender to cook with. (*And check out our Real Food Rule of Thumb, below, for more information.)
Characteristics and What to Look for
Lavender for medicinal and culinary purposes is generally used dry - most commonly the dried flowers are used, but occasionally you will see the dried leaves of the plant as well. Dried lavender flowers should be fairly vibrant in color and very aromatic.
Nutrition and effects on the body
You'll probably never ingest enough lavender in one sitting to make much of a nutritional dent in your diet, but the herb is fairly high in Vitamin A, calcium and iron. Lavender has been used for centuries for various ailments, including psychological issues like anxiety, depression and sleeplessness, plus intestinal and stomach problems like nausea and vomiting. There is some research-based evidence that lavender really does produce a calming, sedative effect when smelled.
What to Do with It and Cooking
Dried lavender is most often used in sweet dishes, although you do see it pop up from time to time in savory dishes. I think the key to using lavender in the kitchen is to use the herb judiciously - too much and your cookies or drink or chicken dish runs the risk of tasting like soap! The herb pairs well with citrus (think lemon and orange), dairy (think goat cheese, heavy cream, butter), summer fruits and vegetables (like peaches, plums, blueberries, eggplant, tomatoes), poultry and lamb and other herbs. Herbes de Provence is a blend of a number of different herbs common in the Provençal region of France that, in the US, has come to include lavender, along with (usually) rosemary, savory, oregano and thyme. (Most French blends, however, do not include lavender.) Either way, the herb blend is great with grilled meats and summer veggies.
Lots of beverages can be amped up with a touch of lavender: here's a refreshing lavender lemonade and a delightful sounding lavender mojito. There is even a commercial lavender soda. Here's a recipe about how to make lavender-infused oil, which would be amazing brushed on lamb or veggie kebabs on the grill. And desserts - there are so many ways to incorporate lavender into desserts. Check out Jamie Oliver's lavender crème brulee, this amazing sounding recipe for lavender shortbread sandwich cookies with lemon filling or this honey-lavender ice cream. Here's a nice roundup of other lavender recipes, including lavender sugar, lavender simple syrup, lavender honey butter and a lavender cream of mushroom soup.
Store dried lavender flowers and leaves in a dry, airtight container away from sunlight. Properly stored, dried lavender should keep for at least a year.
Stretching your fresh food dollar though preservation
If you're lucky enough to have your own fragrant lavender patch, you can dry your own lavender for future use - here's a great tutorial. Lavender also makes a super interesting jelly, or try infusing lavender with fruit jams and marmalades, as in this recipe for peach-lavender jam, lemon-lavender marmalade or this blueberry-lavender jam. Or to be really morbid, make Four Thieves Vinegar!
Strawberries with Lavender-Infused Honey
Make the most of the last of the season's local strawberries by topping them with this lavender-infused honey. Use as a topping for vanilla ice cream, or for shortcakes. Or keep it simple and top the strawberry and honey mixture with a bit of unsweetened whipped cream or a drizzle of heavy cream. The lavender-infused honey recipe is loosely adapted from this Martha Stewart recipe. You'll have extra lavender honey left over - use to drizzle on yogurt or pancakes for breakfast!
1⁄2 cup mild honey (such as clover)
1 tablespoon dried culinary lavender flowers
1 pint local, organic strawberries, hulled
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1⁄2 teaspoon lavender flowers
- To make the lavender-infused honey: heat the honey and lavender in a small saucepan until very hot. Let cool completely, then cover and let infuse for at least 8 hours or overnight.
- Halve the hulled strawberries (or quarter if very large) and add to a medium bowl. Toss with the sugar, lemon juice and lavender flowers and let stand, stirring occasionally, until the juices start to run, at least an hour.
- Strain the lavender-infused honey, discarding the lavender flowers. Drizzle 2-3 tablespoons lavender-infused honey over the strawberries (or more or less to taste). Serve immediately.
(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG's guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them - agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry's tendency toward large monocrops.)