There's not another crop that caresses the senses like lavender.
That sounds a little sentimental, a little grandmother's-potpourri corny, but "caress" is the right word for lavender. Even before arriving at the Lakeside Lavender Festival in Nampa on a mid-July weekend, the scent of it drifted on the air like fresh laundry and violets. And once I'd caught a glimpse of those fields of lavender flowers, I couldn't help but let out an involuntary, lavender-laced sigh: The place looked like a French Impressionist painting.
The word "lavender" comes from the Latin "lavare," which means "to wash." Lavender has a cleansing, comforting quality that ancient Romans revered, spiking bathhouse water and the travel kits of marching soldiers with lavender (apparently, even world dominators like an occasional caress).
In 19th century London, young girls sold nosegays of lavender to mask the Dickensian stench, and during World War I, hospital workers swabbed floors and open wounds with lavender. Today, lavender is more often found tucked into dried flower arrangements, stuffed in sachets or distilled into perfumes and scented soaps. But this Mediterranean herb is also cousin to mint, sage and thyme and those in the know use the delicate-tasting angustifolia side of the Lavandula genus as an actual kitchen herb. Just take a look at the list of ingredients on that bottle of Herbes de Provence in your spice rack.
At the entrance booth to this year's seventh annual Lakeside Lavender Festival, Jessica Flynn was offering free lavender lemonade and tea cookies to a steady stream of arriving visitors. Both treats had just a hint of soft, lavender flavor--too much lavender can taste like a shot of laundry detergent.
"I love the culinary varieties," Flynn said as she held up a wand of the stunning, densely flowered Royal Velvet lavender. "You can cook with it when you're done looking at it," she said as she took a sniff. "Then we've got Munstead and Blue Hidcote and a variety of others that you can cook with."
After wandering around the festival for a while, tallying up numerous other lavender-spiked edibles like lavender lattes, lavender iced teas, lavender cream sodas, lavender honey and lavender ice cream, I wasn't surprised to hear Lakeside Lavender Farm owner Steve Clark talk about working to make lavender more popular in the kitchen.
"We've been kind of trying to emphasize the culinary side," Clark said. "That's been one of the fun aspects of the whole lavender business for us, introducing people to the food. And that's why we give complimentary lavender lemonade and lavender cookies, so that people can have that taste."
That lavender taste may be new to many Americans, and so too is lavender farming and the lavender festival phenomenon itself. Clark's family has owned this land for more than 80 years, but they've only been growing lavender for the last nine.
"Well, we started growing lavender because Marie, my wife, had read an article in Oprah magazine about a lady that had moved to Texas and got involved in lavender and lavender festivals," Clark explained. "So we did a little research, planted some lavender and then went to Washington to lavender festivals."
The Sequim area of Washington has dozens of lavender farms and is credited with sparking the lavender festival craze about 15 years ago.
"There wasn't anybody in the Treasure Valley at that time doing it," Clark continued. "And we thought we had a place that we could do it ... We have been proven correct on that."
The proof was in the festival. All around us, people were cutting lavender bouquets, taking horse-drawn buggy rides, attending workshops on lavender growing and eating lavender-inspired lunches.
Though the Idaho Department of Agriculture doesn't track the growth of small-scale lavender farms, an Internet search pulled up several Idaho lavender festivals, from Priest Lake to Twin Falls. It's a national phenomenon, according to Washington lavender festival veteran Paul Jendrucko.
"To my knowledge, there are about a 150 lavender festivals throughout the United States," Jendrucko said. "The Sequim Lavender Festival out on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state is probably the matriarch and most famous lavender festival in the country."
Jendrucko helped found the Sequim Lavender Festival, which recently celebrated its 15th year, and now teaches lavender-growing classes under the pseudonym Dr. Lavender. He said baby boomers, like himself, who were headed into retirement with time on their hands and a little land were the driving force behind the lavender farming and festival surge.
"Many of them had small pieces of land, and they weren't going to buy a bunch of heavy equipment and go into mass commodity vegetable production," Jendrucko explained. "Lavender and cut flower production was something that was attainable and manageable."
A 2006 National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service survey found that "almost without exception, lavender farmers in the United States are all in the entertainment farming business," focusing on small-scale production, festivals and the public's growing interest in agritourism.
Most lavender festivals in the United States are held in June or July, at the peak of a region's lavender-flowering season. But locally, the opportunity to taste dishes laced with lavender might linger. Dustan Bristol, chef and owner of Brick 29 restaurant in Nampa--caterers of the lavender-inspired lunch at the Lakeside Festival--picked up 2 pounds of the Clark family's lavender and plans to use it when the mood strikes.
"We like to use lavender in creme brulee, panna cotta, and we love it with lamb," Bristol said. "Because of the festival, we currently have a special salad on the menu for lunch right now where we're doing lavender poached chicken with a roasted cherry vinaigrette, hearts of palm and candied almonds."
Nick Duncan, head chef at La Belle Vie in Nampa, taught a cooking class at the festival and was also inspired to add some lavender to his restaurant's menu. For the class, he created something special.
"We did a lemon and lavender sorbet, and then a panko and lavender-encrusted chicken breast," Duncan said. "The chicken breast turned out so good that we actually started doing that at our restaurant."
For chef Franck Bacquet, culinary lavender is nothing new. He cooked with lavender when he was a young chef in France and stocks several varieties in the kitchen of his Boise restaurant Le Coq Rouge.
"Normally, you use lavender with something mild," he said in his rather formidable French accent. "It won't go very well with beef, but goes very well with chicken, pheasant, partridge and seafood. Seafood is the best, I think."