If there’s one colour that defines Provence, it’s purple – a result of the vast carpets of lavender that cover the countryside between mid-June and mid-August, especially around the Luberon valley, the Plateau de Valensole near Manosque and the Sault area.
Lavender has been grown here for hundreds of years. The aromatic flowers are harvested in full bloom between 15 July and 15 August on a hot, dry day. Truckloads of cut lavender, called paille (straw), get tightly packed into steam stills to extract their essential oils.
Since 1997 huile essentielle de lavande de Haute-Provence (Haute-Provence lavender oil) has been protected by its own appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC), but the vast majority of farms produce a higher-yielding hybrid called lavandin. Only a handful of farms still produce their crops from the more finicky lavande species, which commands much higher prices and (according to aficionados) has a much finer aroma.
Many farms and distilleries are open for visits, detailed on the Routes de la Lavande (www.routes-lavande.com) website, and an accompanying leaflet, available from tourist offices. To learn more about the harvesting and distilling process, head for the Château du Bois near St-Saturnin-lès-Apt or the Musée de la Lavande in Coustellet.
One of the best distilleries open to the public is Distillerie Les Agnels, just outside Buoux, while Les Lavandes Champelle is an excellent artisanal producer that sells products from a roadside stall near Sault.
A high-profile museum has also opened in Digne-les-Bains, the Musée de la Lavande, which explores Provence’s lavender-growing culture and holds distilling displays in its courtyard during summer.
There are also lavender-themed festivals in Valensole (mid-July), Sault (mid-August) and Valréas (early August).