It’s said that aromas can remain with us and trigger memories for a lifetime; I’m certain this is true. I clearly remember the clean, sweet herb scent of lavender sachets wafting up whenever my beautiful, gentle mother slid open the drawers or her highboy dresser or dabbed Yardley English Lavender cologne behind her ears. And though she died far too young (and deeply mourned) more than forty years ago, just a whiff of lavender in my garden or kitchen today instantly calls her up—still vibrant and in good health—in my mind’s eye.
With such an intensely pleasant association, I would have to love lavender. (See another post and recipe here.) But it’s only in the last several decades that I’ve enjoyed it in more than sachets, soaps, and perfumes. Since my mother didn’t grow any herbs in her garden, I started out knowing almost nothing other than that the dried herb was aromatic and that the distinctive purple flowers pictured in the romantic, Victorian-style images on her lavender bath products were charming.
A whole succession of English regents used lavender. Queen Elizabeth I reportedly had a sweet tooth and always had a lavender conserve at hand to enjoy. Later, Queen Victoria used it lavishly and was largely responsible for its enormous popularity in the 19th century, as this quote from an 1895 book, Fragrant Flowers, suggests: “The royal residences are strongly impregnated with the refreshing odour of this old-fashioned flower, and there is no perfume that the Queen likes better than Lavender-water, which, together with the oil for disinfecting purposes, Her Majesty has direct from a lady who distills it herself.”
The association of lavender with antimacassar lace and staid Victorian ladies, plus the arrival of more and more seemingly magical chemical air fresheners, deodorants, and disinfectants after 1900 doubtless account for it gradually falling out of favor in the second half of the 20th century. Up until the last twenty years or so, at least in the mid-Atlantic region, only a few herbalists and specialty growers were carrying lavender, and even fewer sold fresh blooms or live plants. Dried lavender was marketed almost exclusively for soap and candle crafting and very rarely suggested as an ingredient in cooking.
Now, thank goodness, this glorious herb is making a comeback, having captured the fancy of 21st century aromatherapy and culinary fans, as well as those suspicious of chemical additives and turning to natural enhancers again. I started growing lavender in the early 1990s, at first strictly as a garden ornamental. The curved spires are graceful and eye-catching and attract butterflies, plus I revel in the refreshing spicy-citrus aroma whenever I walk past.
Truthfully, here in my Maryland yard cultivation is a bit of a challenge: The soil is heavy and mostly clay, and lavenders like it light and sandy. Much of my yard is shady, and lavenders prefer full sun. Many of the English lavenders whither from our intense summer heat, and the French lavenders are often killed by our occasional hard winter freezes.
Some of my California foodie friends report that lavender grows like a weed for them; dare I say I’m green with envy!? But so far the only variety I’ve found that thrives here in summer and survives the winter left in the ground (usually, if well mulched) is Provence. Fortunately, its foliage is a pleasing green-gray, its bracts daintily shaped, and its tiny blooms an arresting purple-blue; see the pic below right. And, most important, its taste is bright, with a lively mix of floral, spice, lemon, and pine notes, so it is a fine choice for culinary use.
About ten years ago, I began experimenting with lavender in the kitchen and only wish I’d done so sooner. It adds a haunting, almost addictive dimension to baked goods such as shortbreads and to certain fruit and berry recipes, especially ones featuring blackberries, peaches or lemons. Try tossing in a couple lavender heads to infuse poached berries, or a sorbet mixture, or jelly or jam; fish them out when the cooking is done.
Note that the bracts and tiny blooms they hold, not the leaves, are the edible parts of this herb. Also, be sure to purchase “culinary grade” dried lavender for cooking purposes. Lavender for craft projects is not processed under the same standards and may not have an appealing flavor profile either. One sign that lavender is back in the mainstream: McCormick is now carrying it in its gourmet bottled herb line.
Lavender-Blackberry Simple Syrup
Lavender recipes as not as common in 18th and 19th century cookbooks as I expected. The "receipt" I liked best was in the 1832 The Cook's Own Book, by Mary Middleton Rutledge Fogg. To make "Lavender Drops" she called for filling a quart bottle with "blossoms of lavender," and pouring over "as much brandy as it will contain..." She recommended a few drops of the strained mixture with a bit of sugar for "nervous cases;" I'm thinking the brandy might have had more to do with any calming effect than then lavender.
I don't claim that this syrup has any medicinal properties whatsoever, it just tastes uniquely herbal-floral and pleasing. Splash or drizzle this syrup over mixed fruit compotes, or dishes of berries, melon, peaches or sliced nectarines. Add a little scoop of ice cream or sorbet and perhaps a pedestal serving dish, for light and simple, yet elegant sundaes like the one shown here. And do experiment with stirring a little syrup into hard or soft beverages; it is particularly winning paired with lemon drinks of all sorts.
Depending on the variety, brand, and degree of freshness, dried lavender can be fairly mild or boldly flavored to the point of being overpowering. Take a sniff and then add in between 1 and 1 1/2 tablespoons, as seems appropriate. Note that the blackberries are mostly incorporated for color. If desired, you can leave them out, in which case the syrup will have very pale grayish-lavender color instead.
Tip: The syrup needs to be stored, airtight, in the refrigerator.
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup water
2 tablespoons clover honey or light corn syrup
1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons dried lavender blooms
4 to 6 fresh blackberries, washed, drained, and mashed with a fork
Stir together the sugar, water, honey, lavender, and blackberries in a 1-quart saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, stirring, then adjust the heat so the mixture boils gently. Cook, without stirring for 6 to 7 minutes. Let stand so the lavender can more fully infuse the syrup 5 to 10 minutes longer; taste it after 5 minutes to decide if it needs more time.
Bring the syrup just back to a full boil again, then strain it through a fine sieve into a clean sterilized bottle or jar. Press down lightly to force through the liquid. Let cool to room temperature and store, refrigerated, for up to 2 weeks. Makes about 2/3 cup syrup.