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Sweet Herbs - Lavender - Lavandula species

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© Provided by DKBooks

© Provided by DKBooks

Lavender - Lavandula species

The sight of the deep purple-blue lavender fields shimmering in the heat as you travel down the Rhône valley in France is, for me, the first real indication of reaching the warm south. Native to the Mediterranean region, lavender became a popular garden plant in Tudor England. Today, lavender is grown in many parts of the world for display, for the kitchen, and for its aromatic oils.

Culinary uses

Lavender is very potent and must be used sparingly. A few dried lavender flowers immersed in a jar of sugar for a week or so will give it a fine, sweet aroma. Alternatively, grind fresh lavender flowers and sugar to a powder – this gives a stronger flavor since grinding breaks down the buds and the sugar absorbs the aromatic oils. Use the sugar for baking and in desserts.

Fresh flowers can be chopped and added to a cake batter or sweet pastry or shortbread dough before baking. Scatter petals over a cake or dessert to decorate it. Add flowers to preserves toward the end of the cooking time, or to fruit compotes for a sweetly spiced note. Infuse flowers in cream, milk, syrup, or wine to flavor sorbets and other desserts. Lavender ice cream is very good, or try adding lavender to chocolate ice cream or mousse.

Lavender is successful in savory dishes, too. Chop leaves for a salad or scatter flowers over the top. Fold chopped flowers into cooked rice. Use chopped flowers and leaves to flavor a leg of lamb, or roast or casseroled rabbit, chicken, or pheasant. Add lavender to marinades and rubs. Lavender also makes an excellent vinegar.

Around the Mediterranean, lavender is used in herb mixtures. In Provence, France, it is blended with thyme, savory, and rosemary; in Morocco, it is sometimes used in ras el hanout.

Good with blackberries, blueberries, cherries, mulberries, plums, rhubarb, strawberries; and chicken, lamb, pheasant, rabbit.

Combines well with marjoram, oregano, parsley, perilla, rosemary, savory, thyme.

Tasting notes

Lavender has a penetrating, sweetly floral, and spicy aroma with lemon and mint notes; the taste echoes the aroma with undertones of camphor and a touch of bitterness in the aftertaste. The flowers have the strongest fragrance, but leaves can also be used.

Parts used

Fresh and dried flowers; leaves.

Buying and storing

Well-stocked garden centers and herb nurseries have plentiful supplies of a variety of lavenders from spring to autumn. Fresh lavender flowers and leaves will keep in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to a week. Dried lavender will keep for a year or more. To dry flowers, hang stems in small bunches or spread on trays; when fully dry, rub the flowers from the stems and store in an airtight container.

Grow your own

Lavender needs an open, sunny position and well-drained soil, whether in the garden or a container. The flowers are best harvested just before they are fully open, when their essential oils are most potent. Harvest leaves at any time during the growing season.

English lavender - L. angustifolia

The gray-green foliage and lilac, purple, or white flowers of this evergreen shrub make it one of the most attractive garden plants. Also called common lavender, it is the best lavender for the cook because of its lower camphor content.

Fresh leaves

Like rosemary, lavender has tough leaves that must be chopped finely; flowers also have a firm base, but petals can be plucked out.

Dried flowers

Soft, floral-scented, English lavender is no less prized for its oils than the intensely aromatic original lavender from the Mediterranean.

French lavender - L. stoechas

Also called Spanish lavender, this bushy shrub has narrow, green leaves and purple flowers topped by purple bracts. Some varieties are hardy, others are half-hardy and may survive the winter in a sheltered spot. L. stoechas has a more pungent camphor note than L. angustifolia.

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