Lavender Harvest

Lavender Harvest Festival at Sacred Mountain Farm
Last month I had the pleasure and honour to witness (and micro-participate) in lavender harvest at an organic lavender farm on Saltspring Island, BC. No amount of photographs of lavender field in full bloom could have prepared me for the tremendous multi-sensory beauty that they bestow upon those who visit them in person. 

Lavender Harvest & Steam Distillation Festival at Sacred Mountain Farm

Lavender Harvest & Steam Distillation Festival at Sacred Mountain Farm

Lavender Harvest Festival at Sacred Mountain Farm 

This summer I had the pleasure and privilege to witness and micro-participate in the lavender harvest and distillation at Sacred Mountain Lavender Farm. Nothing could have prepared me for how wonderful the aroma of hundreds of lavender shrubs simultaneously blooming would be. It's an all-immersing experience that is hard to describe in words.

Everything about those bushes - stems, leaves, buds and petals - contributes to a whole experience of a living, breathing lavender, the reassuring presence of the essential oil content, like a whiff at a lavender sachet in one's linen closet, promising a good night's sleep; and the smell of wet twigs and coumarin that emanates from the rest of the plant. I won't lie to you: it smelled quite familiar, like a rich green, paste-like lavender absolute, or an all-natural Fougère fragrance which would at least have some lavender absolute.

The fields, even though relatively small in size (only 2 acres), stretch upon the hillsides of sacred Mount Tuam, and create a very impressive view of Mediterranean-azure against the natural habitat of Canadian. They really are more blue than any other lavender I've ever seen. So saturated with colour, they are almost fluorescent. Nothing like the dull greyish-purple I've been accustomed to seeing.

As expected, the lavender grows in neat rows of puffy blue shrubs, with plenty of space between the rows to stroll around and tend to the plants. The earth between them lined with black sheets to conserve moisture (a most important thing especially with the drought this year!). Another pleasant surprise: As you walk through the rows, golden honeybees are abuzz on every step you take. They are very friendly, and won't disturb your harvest as long as you don't squish them. It was such a rejuvenating experience, that even my daughter, who usually gets rather puzzled and distressed about any agricultural tasks, knew exactly what to do and walked herself gracefully around the bees and made a beautiful lavender bundle all of her own.

Lavender Harvest & Steam Distillation Festival at Sacred Mountain Farm

This farm grows 60 varieties of lavender in their educational demonstration plots, including some less known cultivars, such as a "Melissa" white lavender, and Maillette. They had a "U Pick" which is how Miss T and I were able to scavenge the rows of buzzing angustifolia bushes (which they called "English Lavender" for some peculiar reason; their Lavandin, by the way, was called "French"). To be perfectly accurate, this lavender is about as Canadian as could be. And I'd also like to mention: this is not the first lavender farm I've come across. There was one in Quebec near my dad's country house; there's one I heard about in the Okanagan near Osoyoos, and there is also  the Montrose Family Farm nearby on Bowen Island, who comes to the market every August with their lavender bouquets, sachets and handmade wands which they weave on the spot.

What's unique about this farm is that they are fully dedicated to lavender and also distill the oil and hydrosol on the spot. Every year in mid-July they hold a Lavender Festival to commence the lavender harvest season (which normally lasts between July 20 - September 1), and I was lucky to be visiting Salt Spring Island with my mom exactly that weekend. They had live concerts and dance performances, and this year they had an Italian theme so most of the music was arias from Italian operas, and an Italian chef created an entire menu using fresh lavender flowers from the farm - there was pasta with peas, fresh mozzarella, lavender and basil; pizza with eggplant and lavender, and a Sicilian ricotta pie that was on the drier side (a little like a bar with a shortbread-like crust on the bottom and top), and had a ricotta filling dotted with candied lemon peel and the non traditional addition of lavender, of course.

Lavender Harvest & Steam Distillation Festival at Sacred Mountain Farm
There was a distillation demonstration for a couple of hours, in which you could see how they separate the buds from the branches (after they dry them) for filling sachets, etc.); and also how the freshly harvested lavender is being fed to the still and see a little bit of the oil forming on top of the water (see below).

The yield at the farm is about 0.4%-0.5% oil to fresh plant matter in lavender (L. angustifolia), which means you'll need between 200-250 lb of lavender to make only 1 lb of lavender essential oil and 1% for lavandin (L. latifolia), which will require 100 lb to produce 1 lb of lavandin oil. This is low in comparison to a good lavender yield (110 lb to produce 1 lb of oil - which is about 0.9%) and even lower than an average one (150 lb, or 0.66%). I'm guessing there could be a few reasons for that, one being the climate, which is perhaps Mediterranean in Canadian terms; but rather not in Mediterranean terms. No matter how you slice it, the sun pattern is not the same on the 49th parallel as it is at the 43rd (where the Maritimes-Alpes in France are, for example); and moreover, even if there is less rain on Salt Spring than in the rest of the Lower Mainland - it's still plenty of rain, even in a drought year like this year.
Lavender distillation
But more important is the terroir, and in particular the altitude. The farm is situated just a little above sea level. However, lavender that grows in high altitudes not only produces more esters, but also more of them make it to the finished product. The reason is, that in high altitudes, the boiling point of water lowers down to 93c. Therefore, the oils can get produced at a lower temperature, and without destroying as much as the delicate components (such as esters). This is the two-fold reason why lavender grown in high altitude has a superior quality. Nevertheless, the oil at Sacred Mountain Lavender Farm is quite lovely, with hints of an almost chocolate-like sweetness.

Lavender harvest

At the farm's shop you can get all their locally made lavender products, including lavender and lavandin essential oils and hydrosols, body butters and creams, culinary lavender products (herbal blends, lavender-scented teas and tisanes, etc.), and of course - lavender sachets. 

Lavender Harvest Festival at Sacred Mountain Farm

Lavender festival
Miss T and I are the king and queen of lavender, at least for the photo! 

Masquerade Secret Supper

Masquerade Secret Supper

Yesterday I attended a Samhain dinner party titled Masquerade Secret Supper hosted by my friend Charlotte and her roommate Ada. It was oh so lovely and delicious, and I hope you will find it as inspiring as I did!

It was a fundraiser dinner hosted at their home, and I could have not imagined that they would have transformed their living room into an intimate, restaurant-like dining room! It was so beautifully decorated - fall leaves and maple seed "helicopters" on the table, with tiny carved pumpkin lamps, a mobile of paper-cut houses with flickering candle within each; and a fabric collage of animal-shaped shadows spread on the wall (Charlotte is a textile artist among her many talents).

It was very dimly lit, so I could not take any photos whatsoever of the food (which is a shame, but also was a very nice break from taking photos of every piece of amazing food I experience, which can be not only tiresome, but also take away from the experience). So instead, I stole the hand-written menu from my table and you can use your vivid imagination to picture yourself how each course looked and tasted!

Hors D'euvres
- edible artichoke centrepiece with tappenades and fresh-baked bread

- Butternut squash soup with pear, blue cheese cream and red wine reduction drizzle

- Roasted root pie with herbed chevre a la mode
- Braised tender lamb in pomegranate sauce
- Massaged kale, beet and pumpkin seed salad with lemon-tahini dressing

- Chocolate pumpkin cheesecake
- Assorted choux a la creme (chai spice, chocolate hazelnut, rosemary salted caramel) with apple fennel croquettes

- Crisp Autumn Night: a purifying potion of rosemary, peppercorn and vanilla infused gin, with tonic and simple syrup poured over a caramelized pear.
- Red wine
- Virgin cocktails available

The appetizers were flavourful and appetizing, the soup of butternut squash and pear delicate, flavourful and something I definitely want to try at home (I got all the ingredients!) and by the time I finished the main course of harvest root pie and kale salad, I felt lucky the choux a la creme (cream puffs) were tiny and delicate - because I barely had any room left. These three tasted amazing, but my palate was even more tantalized by the little bites of fennel & apple croquettes (which were slices of fennel and apple atop buttery and soggy sable). My favourite of the three was the hazelnut & chocolate creme one. And I am glad I got a couple of bites of the pumpkin & chocolate cheesecake, which was more of a cream layer cake, with chocolate wafer base, pumpkin and creamy cheese filling, and a fudgy chocolate icing decorated with pomegranate seeds.

But my favourite of all was actually the "Crisp Autumn Night" cocktail - an imaginative brew that was accompanied by the instructions you see in the photograph. It was made of gin infused with vanilla, pepper and rosemary, served with tonic water, caramelized pear slice, and, lo and behold - two ice "stirring sticks" - one with a greenish hue (cucumber? rosemary??) and the other embedded with pomegranate seeds. It was such a treat and if the rest of my Celtic year is as complex and satisfying, I might just have to try to brew it myself next Halloween... If I can wait that long!

Crisp Autumn Night Cocktail
And if you can't view this image, here's what the little note said:
"In the Witches' wheel of the year, Samhain (pronounced "waawen"), which usually falls at the end of October, is the time when the veils between the world of the conscious and rational, and the unconscious and un-rational are thin. It is also the New Year - a timei to reflect on and let go of the old in order to make room for the burgeoning and new.
This potion was brewed with the magival intention to bring this symbolic reflection, release, and invitation into a drinkable form. This is a spell in a beverage. Its makers invite you to use it either as a delicious un-magical cocktail or as a cleansing and renewing elixir by following these steps:
1. Ground yourself by taking a deep breath.
2. Remember this previous year - from last Samhain up until now. Be gentle and forgiving in your review.
3. Recall the things you are ready to let go of, to do without, to interrupt, to be done with, and blow them into your drink. Literally.
4. The drink's magic is its ability to purify, cleanse, and transform your energies and offerings.
5. Now take a taste, and set your intention for the year to come - imagine abundance, friendship, self-love, dancing, brimming creativity, and the energy to see all your projects and ideas through.
Anything is possible when you start the New Year in the Enchanted Forest...

Olive Harvest

Harvest season has different flavours, textures, aromas and colours from place to place depending on what crops can be grown there. While here in North America fall harvest is all about corn and pumpkins and yams - in the Mediterranean region, fall surrounds the central event of olive harvest, similarly to how in late spring is all about the wheat harvest. These two cycles are connected all to the rain, which make all events very time-sensitive and a bit stressful for the farmers and their families. Especially when considering how precious rain is in the area. We spend the year in anticipation for the rain and the first rain is a major event!

Wheat fields are sowed before the first rain, so that they can get as much rainfall as possible and sprout. Olives are harvested right after the first rain, so that the summer's dust is washed off the olives' skins. And the olives must be picked before too much more rain arrives, so that they don't become all soggy or rot - this will not produce a very good oil!

So for me, growing up in the Western Galilee, fall harvest is identified with the scent of olives. And this is not the olives you are familiar with from the jars or cans or on top of your pizza. These are fresh olives before they get pickled in brine or salt. Their aroma is not as pungent as some other fruit could be; and it only will release itself if the fruit is bruised. But you can rest assured that by the end of a day spent picking olives, your hands will smell like olives - green, oily, waxy - and will taste awfully bitter!

olive harvesting in tuscany, originally uploaded by mestolando.com.

This is how olives are harvested in Tuscany - and it's pretty much the same way it's done elsewhere, although some like to beat around the trees (pun intended) with sticks. It's not really effective and a lot of leaves fall to the ground, and a lot of olives just stay on the tree... And as you can see in this photo - the ground is covered with fine sprouts of wild grasses and weeds of all sorts that just woke up from the first rain... Harvesting olives may be tedious, and is like a race against the next rain, but you are sure to spend the days in the fresh air, enjoying the kisses from the gentler autumn sun, and socializing with family and neighbours that all work towards the same goal: pressing the finest olive oil possible for that year, and perhaps also producing a few jars of pickled olives while they're at it.

I'd be curious what are your association with "harvest" wherever in the world you are or grew up in.

Happy Shavuot!

Shavuot 2006 - 1.6.06, originally uploaded by ISH-10-M.

Happy Shavuot - the Wheat Harvest Holiday!
I am celebrating with the customary dairy dishes, good cheese and wine.
Below is a recipe for my favourite dish for the holiday, Blintzes.

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