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by Linda Gilbert

Say the word "lavender" and images of light purple fields swaying gently in late summer sunshine come to mind, along with the memory of the clean, fresh fragrance of the flowers. Even thoughts of the color lavender bring to mind soft and peaceful images.

A plant valued even by ancient peoples for its cleansing and cosmetic properties, we tend to see it used in landscaping more and more these days because of its drought resistant properties and showy, fragrant nature. A typical Mediterranean native, it loves full hot sun and loose, fast draining soil. Great as a hedge plant, in borders, or as part of an herb garden, it is equally happy as a container plant. Its bushy shape, grey-green leaves, and tall purple whorls of flowers make for quite a display. Many of the wineries in the Sonoma Valley have planted lavish gardens of lavender, not only for the breath taking early fall display, but the flowers attracts bees and butterflies which help with pollination. I highly recommend a trip to Mantanzas Creek Winery in Sonoma: not only for their wines, but to view their multi- acre lavender fields which are stunning when in full bloom.

Most people associate lavender with soaps, perfumes and for its use in aroma therapy to soothe and calm. As far back as early Romans and Greeks people would bathe in waters scented with lavender. The name "lavender" in fact comes from the Latin word "lavare" which means to wash. Its use as a medicinal plant is long as well, treating a number of nervous related conditions, such as insomnia, migraine headaches, irritability, and depression. It is also said to have powerful antibiotic properties. During the height of the Plague during the Middle Ages, the French town of Grasse remained surprisingly free of the disease. Some suspect this is because of the huge volume of lavender used by the town to make perfumes and scent leather.

While English Lavender (Lavendula officinalis or angustifolia) is primarily used for perfumes and soaps, it is most often French Lavender (Lavandula dentata) that is used for cooking. I have used flowers from many different plants, unsure of their variety and have found one rule of thumb: the darker the color of the blossom-- the more intense the flavor. Given this range of intensities I tend to cook with lavender as I do with most herbs: go lightly at first to test the intensity and depth of flavor, then add more as needed.

All lavenders are members of the Lamiaceae family of plants, of which most of the culinary herbs are members, including mint, basil, oregano and sage. Besides all being highly aromatic, they share in common square stems, opposing leaves, and their attractive whirled flower spikes. There are 28 species of lavender, but since they have been cultivated for centuries and tend to interbreed easily, there tends to be some disagreement as to proper names.

The best time to harvest the flowers is when they are newly opened. At this point they can be used fresh, or cut long stems to dry for later use. While still fresh and pliable, you can make lavender wands-- fragrant, decorative bundles of lavender. To make them, long stalks are gathered into bunches from 1/2" to 2" in diameter; the blossom ends are turned in on themselves; and the entire wand is tightly woven together with colorful ribbons. Not only visually pleasing, they perfume the room they are in. When the fragrance begins to fade, just squeeze the blossom end to release the aroma. Lavender is ideal for dried arrangements, and lasts quite a long time. The blossoms retain their color and fragrance long after the stems have turned brown. As with the wands, crushing the blossoms releases the oils, reviving the scent.

While thought of primarily for its fragrance, lavender does play an important, if some what subtle role in cooking. Generally it is the flowers that are used although sometimes the leaves are used in recipes from southern France. They reportedly have a slightly bitter taste. Probably the most common use of the flowers is as one of the components in the seasoning mixture Herbes de Provence. Driving through southern France at this time of year, seeing all the fields of lavender, it is easy to understand why lavender is an integral part of the mix that is named for the region. To this blend of thyme, savory, basil, and fennel lavender adds a decidedly perfumey and slightly musky taste along with a hint of citrus making it ideal for use with fish, grilled meats, or stews. Try using lavender in red sauces for pasta or pizza; it gives it an intriguing rich taste.

Lavender also goes well with fruit, especially raspberries and blueberries. A creme anglais flavored with lavender makes an elegant end to a meal. Crystallized lavender flowers are often used to decorate pastries and desserts. Mint and lemon are two other flavors that combine well with lavender. Try flavoring rich black tea with mint, lavender and lemon for a refreshing drink on these hot days of Indian summer. With lavender's bright color, sweet perfume, and tiny shape, it is fun to use as a garnish -- on salads, entrees, or sprinkled in combination with other blossoms for a striking presentation.

A rich and comforting dish, just right for a chilly autumn evening, either for family or luxurious enough for entertaing.

Chicken with Black Figs and Lavender
serves 4 generously

3 1/2 lbs chicken, cut into pieces
2 Tbls olive oil
2 onions, diced
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1tsp thyme leaves
3/4 cup red wine
3/4 lb fresh black figs, stems removed, quartered
3 cups chicken stock
2 tsp garlic
1 1/2 tsp lavender buds, reserving 1/4 tsp for garnish

Saute the chicken in 1 Tablespoon of the oil until golden on the outside. Remove from the pan and hold aside. Without cleaning the pan, add the other Tablespoon of oil and saute the onions, stirring frequently to prevent burning. When onions are lightly browned, add the remaining ingredients. Stir to combine. Add the chicken cook slowly until done, about 15 minutes. Remove chicken to serving platter. Turn up the heat and reduce the sauce until it is thick. Pour over the chicken and serve.

Linda Gilbert is a Bay Area freelance journalist, a cooking class instructor, and co-owner of a Sonoma catering company, Broadway Catering and Events.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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