We’re just coming to the end of lavender harvest here. It’s a hectic time for the producers. Things start quietly enough in the middle of July with the harvest of the Clary Sage, then the lavender harvest gets going and it just goes crazy. They’re literally working flat out from 5am to 1am for two or three weeks. It’s nowhere near as labour intensive as it used to be, but it’s still damn hard work.
Last year, I saw first-hand how the lavender is harvested but I’ve always been curious about how it’s transformed from being stuff growing in a field to being a clear oil in a bottle. I knew our friends at Gaec de Pimayon took their crops to a distillery on the far side of Vachères but what I didn’t realise until recently was that the distillery is run as a co-operative. This means that they all have to man it at some stage – the group doesn’t employ someone to run it. When we heard this, we asked if we could visit the distillery while one of our friends is there and find out what the whole process involves.
The LSH also wanted to take photos of the cutting process. He knew what was involved since seeing my photos last year but he was still shocked at how much like cutting silage it is.
The tractor drives along the rows :
There was a second mower in operation the day the LSH was there, which cuts the lavender differently. It doesn’t chop it up so much, it leaves it on the stem, but it gets chucked into the trailer just the same.
This looks more like what we’d expect of a lavender harvest, but note how it’s harvested after the pretty flowering stage. Forget your images of Provençals cutting bunches of flowering lavender with a sickle – to make oil, it’s always cut once the seeds have formed. This is because the seeds contain much more oil than the flower heads and the stems have usually dried out a bit at this stage, too, reducing overall moisture content.
Once the trailer is full, it sets off to the distillery. This step can easily take an hour or more, even though they’re usually cutting within a 10km (6 mile) radius. The distillery is discreetly tucked away in a little valley, but roads around here are narrow and there’s a long, twisting descent to get there. These tractors just can’t go fast, especially with a full load.
This is what a lavender distillery looks like :
No, it’s not what I expected either, but note how those big green crates on stilts match the green trailers. That’s important.
There’s a downstairs section, built into the slope of the hill. Down there, we found a gigantic gas-fired water heating system. So big that I could only photograph bits of it.
Water softening system for the boiler :
Very important in this area, because the water is very hard. There were also a couple of tanks and barrels in a corner…
…and an empty bottle of human fuel!
The next bit is where it really starts to get interesting, but first we’re going to take a look at one of those giant green trailers. Ordinary enough, with metal sides and a metal floor – but why does it have those ridges on the floor?
Let’s take a closer look :
It turns out those ridges are pipe, with little holes in them every so often. Keep that in mind.
When the tractor arrives at the distillery, first of all it joins the queue. Oh look! The trailers match those green crates on stilts! Interesting…
We’re at the end of the season now, so things have quietened down but, at peak cutting-time, there could be four or five tractors in the queue. It takes an hour to process each trailer, so that’s a four or five hour wait. The smart farmer will have left his car at the distillery earlier and, at this stage, he’d hop into it and go back to the farm to do some more work. But the co-operative have provided the distillery with all the comforts of home for anyone who’s waiting.
No, seriously. There’s armchairs, a table and chairs, fridges and a couch where many a tired farmer will stretch out for a snooze.
When it’s not occupied by a visiting Irishwoman, of course. That couch is a helluva lot more comfortable than the couches in our house!
Anyway, each tractor takes its turn. It pulls forward into the processing bay and a giant green lid descends to seal the trailer.
A big pipe is connected at the front of the trailer. You can see it in the above photo at the bottom left. Now are you starting to guess what those pipes with the holes are for?
The lid is locked down with a really heavy duty clamping system and a valve is opened.
Then that big pipe connected at the front starts to inject steam, generated by the big heating system downstairs, into the trailer’s system of pipes. The steam comes out through those little holes in the pipes and starts to heat the lavender but, because the trailer is now sealed, the heated air has nowhere to go and pressure starts to build up.
Yes. It turns out that each one of those giant green trailers is basically a massive pressure cooker! Each trailer is an integral part of the processing system – hence the matching colour!
Once the pressure has come up, the final seal is topped, just like putting a weight on top of a pressure cooker. Now the lavender starts cooking, releasing some moisture but also releasing its precious oil. The moisture and oil are turned into steam. The green crates on stilts – the ones that match the giant green trailers – contain a condenser system of coils in a bath of cold water. The oil-bearing steam is vented into the condensers through the big pipes on top of the ‘lid.’ The steam turns back into water, but now the liquid contains oil, too.
Remember those barrels we found downstairs? This is what they look like when viewed from above :
The condensed water/oil mixture goes into the big barrel at the bottom of the picture. The oil, being lighter than water, rises to the top of the barrel. As the barrel fills up, the top layer of oil starts to gush out through the hole in the middle of the lid. From there, there’s a pipe feeding into the cream coloured barrel to the left of it. This one is labelled ‘Essence de Lavandin. Gaec de Pimayon.’
Meanwhile, there’s a pipe at the bottom of the separation barrel which takes out the water and feeds it, via a funnel, into the middle of the three barrels in the picture. There’s a similar pipe feeding out from this barrel, which takes away any final oils and impurities which rise to the top. These impurities are fed into the third barrel, which ends up containing contaminated water which has to be disposed of safely. The water in the second barrel is clean, although scented with lavender. It can be used for ironing clothes – it’s distilled and it’s got a lovely smell!
Near the end of the process, the distiller (Georges in this case) has to keep a close eye on what’s rising up through the hole in the middle of the oil/water separator. Once the layer of oil at the top starts to thin, there’s a danger of water bubbling up and contaminating the contents of the Gaec de Pimayon oil barrel.
The smell of lavender from our viewpoint for these photos was over-powering, to say the least. But Georges told us to be thankful he wasn’t doing clary sage – apparently that smells like cat pee. Yeuch! I used clary sage when trying to ease migraines at one stage and I would describe it as strange – not nice, but not like cat pee either. I guess when you have it in this sort of intensity it would be pretty disgusting, though.
When the lavender is ‘cooked’ the pressure is slowly reduced, exactly like in a pressure cooker, by turning off the heat and venting the vapour through a small hole when pressure has dropped sufficiently. Then the lid is opened, in a cloud of steam.
The cooked lavender will be dumped on fallow ground or stubble to cool down, like you can see behind the tractor in the above picture. Later on, it will be added to the manure pile and left to rot before it’s spread on the land again as a fertiliser.
We found the whole process fascinating, but I’m sure if you’re there in the distillery for ten hours pushing buttons or opening and closing valves, it becomes very boring. Georges told us that the next crop to be distilled here will be fennel. Fennel? I was curious. I knew that lavendin (the cheaper version of lavender which is grown locally) is used for domestic purposes – to perfume washing up liquid, soaps, fabric softener, air fresheners etc. What are clary sage and fennel used for, I asked.
Clary sage is used for two things and the flowers and stems are processed separately. First of all, the oils are extracted from the flower heads. The market for this oil is very up-and-down. Some years, it’s not even worth distilling this part of the plant. This oil is used as a fixative by the perfume industry. The stem of the plant produces a much more valuable amber coloured solid, called sclareol. It has a more attractive perfume than the oil from the flowers (less cat pee, apparently) and is used by the perfume industry, but it’s also used as a food flavouring and it has medicinal uses too. According to Wikipedia, it can be used to kill human leukemic cells and colon cancer cells! No wonder it’s valuable.
Clary sage has a life cycle of five years max. It’s not harvested the first year but it should produce oil for the next two or even three years. It’s a tough plant and it thrives on very poor ground in an alpine climate (hot summers, cold winters) so it’s the perfect crop for the stony, mountainous parts of this region. Lavender, on the other hand, is susceptible to a bacteria carried by a bug (leaf hoppers) which causes the plants to dry out and die. Until they find a method of controlling this, lavender farmers expect to be ploughing up a lavender field every eight years or so. Then it has to have something else grown in it (usually a cereal crop) for two to three years minimum to get rid of the infestation. Lavender is a much more valuable crop than any cereal, so the growers are keen to get their fields back into production as quickly as possible, naturally!
Fennel oil? What does that get used for? Well, it’s an ingredient for pastis, the anise flavoured liquor which originated in Marseille. The locally grown fennel goes to Ricard, the original producer of pastis, and still the world’s biggest seller. There are strict controls on its cultivation. Inspectors visit the area to inspect the crops a couple of times a year. Then, when it’s being distilled, there is a Ricard representative present the whole time. As soon as a barrel is full of fennel oil, it’s sealed and stowed in the Ricard truck, which sits there waiting all day. Quality control starts well before the manufacturing process!
The modern distilling equipment was only installed fifteen years ago and it was interesting to see the old stills side by side with the new. These are the old cooking vats. The lavender had to be forked into these by hand from the trailers.
Then it would be tamped down, using the concrete filled tyre.
I’m sure this was state-of-the-art in its day, but it looks positively archaic now. The new equipment has made the whole process a lot more efficient and a lot less labour intensive – although the farmers are still putting in nineteen or twenty hour days at harvest time!
So now you know how this
gets turned into this.
I hope you found it as interesting as I did. Otherwise, that makes me some sort of agricultural nerd.