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IMG_3022We recently went to a lavender festival in an area called, confusingly, Cherry Valley. No cherries as such, but a billowing sea of lavender instead, made all the more surreal by its position in a vast, merciless desert, with windswept plains filled with tumbleweed and signs advertising pleasant and welcoming mortuaries. The air was different too. Gone was the hot, dry wind that smelt vaguely burnt in nearby Palm Springs. There was coolness and an endless waft of fresh lavender here, so different to dried, which makes me think of scones and English B&Bs and ‘granny’s pants’. By this I mean stored, clean pants from another era, washed with old soap and perhaps not dried fully, so, though clean, there is a suggestion of staleness.

A fresh sprig of lavender – or should I say ear because to me it has the same corn-like structure – is quite different. Camphorous, sultry and direct. It smells more like it looks: purple and lusty. It is known as a sedative, mainly, something you apply to yourself or a pillow to aid sleep, but according to the talk we attended, it is more of a balancing herb, bringing you back from the brink, settling you back into the centre of things. There were many other things growing, thriving in this oasis – thickets of tea tree, and a long avenue of broad-necked olive trees amongst them. But you couldn’t escape the lavender. We waded through it, running our fingers through the brittle stalks, letting them whip back against our thighs, crumbling the flowers between finger and thumb, enjoying their spiky scent and tight whorls of colour. We found a stall selling lamb kebabs and sat rather drunkenly in the sweet fug of lavender and smoky meat.
IMG_0131The night before we’d decided to visit a casino nearby. We walked in and I had to walk back out again. Noise, made up of music and machines merging like screaming sirens in vague counterpoint, cigarette smoke, cold, piped air, and the look of glassy appetite on the faces of the gamblers all combined to remind me why zombies are still such a resonant force in our culture. Nothing about it made sense to me. And there are no windows, and no clocks inside the place, so you lose any sense of where you are. Who you are, even. More tawdry still is the fact that the casino is built on an Indian reservation, a result of the deal made between Indian tribes and the federal government that allows the Native Americans ‘tribal sovereignty’. It feels, to me at least, like a bit of a crap deal.

So we needed the lavender the next day. I was wondering, looking around, if the same people at the casino the night before were here in this place. It was possible: there were lots of benign-looking elderly ladies at the casino, perched on stools, resting their sticks against the machines, handbags at the ready. And here they were too, with their cameras and grandchildren. I’m not sure how you could do that – how you could square that world with this one. Or how we can ignore the world beneath both, when the land belonged to the Native Americans, before cultivation and agriculture, and every tree, plant and herb was theirs.

Tea tree

Tea tree

Lavender is an odd one to cook with – bitter or rather ‘faded’ has been my experience so far. Lavender honey works beautifully, of course, and there are Provencal dishes that use it imaginatively and to good effect: traditionally, it’s cooked with rabbit. I understand the theory that it works best if treated like rosemary and thyme. But I’d still rather cook with the last two, and keep the lavender as an essential oil, where it feels fresh and alive – the closest to rolling a torn sprig in my hand and letting the smell climb into my limbic system. Ken from The Garum Factory suggested I go the lavender-infused olive oil route and add a few drops over a dish (in this instance melon and Serrano ham) and he was right. The lavender is gentle and warm, and definitely in the background, with just a hint of floral. No granny’s pants here.
From the aromatherapist at the festival, I learnt the simplest technique for using the essential oil: add a few drops to a base of water and use it as a room and body spray. It is beautifully simple and effective. I’ve been dousing my sheets with it and myself (it is, along with tea tree, a clear oil and doesn’t stain fabric. You can also apply it neat to the skin). Also great for getting rid of any ‘untoward’ smells in the house. Recipes below.
Lavender Spray
 Fill a clean spray bottle with 4 ounces of pure distilled water (or tap water)
Pour 6 drops of lavender essential oil directly into the spray bottle
Tightly close the bottle and shake vigorously to combine
Be sure to shake it before each use, as the water and essential oils tend to separate


Lavender-infused olive oil, melon and Serrano ham
Adapted from Skye Gyngell, My Favourite Ingredients
English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia and Munstead) is commonly used for cooking
250ml (1 cup) of extra virgin olive oil
1 lemon
2 sprigs of fresh lavender
Pare the lemon zest in long strips using a vegetable peeler, and place it in a small pan along with the sprigs of lavender. Pour over the olive oil and warm gently to body temperature (around 99F) for ten minutes so the lemon and lavender can release their aromas. If you want a more pronounced lemon flavour, add the zest of 2-3 lemons. Remove from the heat and let stand for 30 minutes. Use on the day of making or within 24 hours. If using with the melon and ham, dribble over the cold fruit (which should be lightly salted) and serve with a scattering of lavender buds or flowers if you like.
“Mercury owns the herb; and it carries his effects very potently. Lavender is of special good use for all the griefs and pains of the head and brain that proceed of a cold cause, as the apoplexy, falling-sickness, the dropsy, or sluggish malady, cramps, convulsions, palsies, and often faintings. Two spoonfuls of the distilled water of the flowers taken, helps them that have lost their voice, as also the tremblings and passions of the heart, and faintings and swooning, not only being drank, but applied to the temples, or nostrils to be smelled unto; but it is not safe to use it where the body is replete with blood and humours, because of the hot and subtile spirits wherewith it is possessed.” 
Nicholas Culpeper, Complete Herbal (1653)