Provencal colours, perfumes and tastes delight, writes Annabel Langbein.
As we step on to the grass in the garden of the hotel Le Couvent des Minimes, our guide, botanist and medicinal plants expert Madame Tachka Sofer, urges us to take off our shoes. In her lilting Franglais, she tells us, "in these times of long days and short nights there is a beautiful dew". This dew, she says, "is the witness of the ecological climate".
When you walk on it, "you are the link between the earth and the sky".
It feels lovely, this soft, dew-drenched grass, and even more so for the way it seems to trigger all of my senses. Suddenly I am aware of the opalescent quality of the light, the songs of the birds breaking through the motorcycle drone of a million cicadas, the warmth of the sun on my back and the raft of delicious scents emanating from these ancient gardens.
It's amazing to think that, at the start of the 17th century when the convent was built in the tiny village of Mane, high in the hills of Haute Provence, the nuns who lived here laboured to eke out these garden terraces from the steep rocky bank that sits to the side of the convent. Then they set about growing all manner of aromatic and medicinal plants here.
The banks of the terraces are covered with almond and olive trees, quintessential forms in the landscape of Haute Provence. Here in these wild, beautiful hills, the almond is considered the milk that nourishes the region. The olive, with its glorious oil, is the gold of the land, while lavender is its soul.
We climb up the zig-zagging path between the terraces, taking in new scents at each turn — cypress, honeysuckle, oregano, verbena, marjoram and lavender. In the heat of the day, they mingle and merge creating a particular scent that I shall from here on think of as "des Menimes".
As we walk up this ancient pathway, we pass a small, shallow cave and learn that the nuns of these early times would come to caves like this to meditate and think about how to prepare their medicines. Most of the knowledge of the therapeutic and medicinal qualities of plants was held by nuns living under religious orders in these times.
Under the shade of the green oaks up on the top terrace, we are given a cooling drink made from an infusion of rose petals and verbena. Left overnight, this cool water has taken on a gentle, lightly fragrant quality and is wonderfully refreshing. An old copper still has been set up on a wooden trestle table and Mme Sofer sets about explaining some of the history and process of distillation. Before she starts she reminds us to breathe "like the plants . . . when you are conscious of the breath you will be present". I get it — this place demands your presence here and now.
I was invited here by L'Occitane en Provence — who create essential oils and use them in their beauty products — to soak up the lifestyle and the ethos that sits at the company's heart. Every day there are new adventures and new discoveries. We visit Aix en Provence, wander its pretty streets and enjoy a fabulous lunch at one of the many good restaurants there. I learn how to make the famous almond sweetmeats known as Calissons at the famous Le Roy Rene shop in Aix. Out in the lavender fields of the hotel I learn techniques of meditation and breathing with a wellness expert. There are massages, delicious meals, yummy wines and interesting people.
Rising one morning at the uncivilised hour of 4am, we drive up the valley from the nearby town of Forcalquier to take a balloon ride. It's my first ballooning experience, and the feeling as the basket lifts off is truly wonderful — a weightless sense of the ground slowly falling away from under you. We drift on the cold air that seeps down the valley, skimming low over the treetops into the dawn. The occasional wild deer flits out from the trees. Our balloon pilot releases a roaring burst of flame into the heart of the balloon and we puff up into the sky and catch the higher air where the winds will take us further afield. Up here at around 600m, the view goes out forever. The plateau is a patchwork of purple, green and gold, echoing the crops of lavender, grass and wheat below. It's quite a surreal feeling, this travelling with the wind, as it feels breathlessly still. The air is so clear, not surpisingly perhaps, as the region has the distinction of having the purest sky and air of France, if not of Europe.
We pass over the pretty village of Forcalquier and over our hotel, viewing the glorious terraces of the nuns' ancient gardens.
A couple of hours later we are bumped back into reality from this pillowy dream, landing in an empty paddock next to a lettuce farm. After such an early start, I am ravenous. There is a delicious breakfast waiting back at the hotel — summer fruits, natural yoghurts, cheeses, olives, pastries and eggs.
Coming from a New Zealand winter, I feel the profusion of luscious fruits wildly extravagant, but here the harvests are pouring in, a feast of apricots, peaches, plums and berries with just-picked sweetness.
Later in the morning, I take a private cooking lesson with the hotel's executive chef, Jerome Roy, and learn the preparation of his extraordinary dessert, Textures de Verveine, which features seven components, each using verbena. There is first a sheet of meringue to be baked, a sorbet to be made and frozen, then a delicate mousse, an infused custard, a jelly and finally crystallised verbena leaves. You might imagine with all that verbena going on, that this dessert would be a one-dimensional overkill, but it is arrestingly delicious, a delicate balance of textures and flavours that has me licking my plate clean.
It has been said that lavender is the soul of Provence, and through June to the end of August, everywhere from Luberon to Aix to Roussillon you'll find the landscape has turned into a quilt of rich blues and purples as the lavender comes into its flowering season. Two species of lavender are cultivated in Provence: lavender and lavandin. True or fine lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is considered the noblest of lavenders for the quality of its essential oil. It grows most happily at an altitude of between 500m and 1500m and can be found on the sunny mountain slopes of Provence. Lavandin is a hybrid of true lavender and spike lavender and its flowers are a deeper purple colour. It grows easily in the wild but is mostly cultivated on the Valensole Plateau, at about 500m above sea level. As we drive up on to the plateau, there are tourists everywhere flashing cameras and phones, Instagrammable moments of lavender-framed smiles flashing out all around the globe.
The rhythm of life in France runs to the heartbeat of the weekly market and in Provence, where the sun shines for some 300 days a year, nature's abundance is overflowing. The Monday morning market in Forcalquier runs up above the main square and then down across the main road in a vast sprawl to the other side of town. It's impossible not to buy something, or at least to taste. The peaches smell like heaven, the fennel bulbs are so fat and crisp, and the cheese . . . ahh the cheese. I dubiously taste one that looks like a violet soap bar — it is deep purplish blue and looks weird and totally artificial. In fact the colouring comes entirely naturally from cabbage juice and, surprisingly, the cheese tastes good. But not as good as the little local artisan goats cheeses, and those huge wheels of comte and beaufort and tomme that come from the sweet summer milk of cows grazing in the high mountains. France reckons to have about 400 cheeses and I am up for sampling them all (well maybe not all at once). There's no fridge in my hotel room to store cheese, so I go for the peaches, filling a bag to put in my room just so that I can savour their inviting aroma. People in France really appreciate good food, which is why the quality is always so high Bio and organic foods have gone mainstream, as people seek out natural, unprocessed foods that have been made with integrity and care.
Michel de Montaigne was one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance. In his writings he once said, "My art and profession is to live". As I leave this sun-kissed corner of the world, I have the sense that the people here still live by this maxim, in touch with themselves and with nature. "Provence c'est l'art de vivre bien" — Provence is the art of living well.
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