New Age appeal of ancient lavender fields gives hope to Provence villages

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"IN 1949, when I moved here, there were children and shops," said Martin Gilbert, the retired mason of Simiane-la-Rotonde, an ancient hilltop village in Provence surrounded by lavender fields. "There was a baker, two grocers, cafes ... [but] the young have all f***** off to Marseilles, like my daughter. Now I rattle round this big house with my wife," he said, jabbing a finger at a fine 17th-century stone four-storey house shadowed by the bell tower.

Mr Gilbert is one of the few local people in the village's charming but empty streets, carving miniature versions of Provencal borries (stone huts) in a garage to sell to tourists.

A photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson, exhibited recently in a London gallery, shows a gaggle of children in Simiane's old covered market a few decades ago, prancing before the camera. Today, the market is pristine and silent. A similar silence envelops the village pump, where not long ago women gathered to wash their clothes.

The church of St Victoire is locked. At the turn of the century it was a thriving parish and the patron saint's feast day was the high point of the year. A summoner clattered round the winding streets, shouting out a long programme of events which included the blessing of the entire population of 1,300 by the cure in the square and a great procession headed by four women carrying the reliquary of St Victoire round the village, followed by dancing and feasting.

These days an old priest comes from the famous cheese town of Banon once a month to say mass to a congregation of about 20. At the neighbouring hilltop village of Oppedette, the church is shut all the time. "Except for funerals," one villager said. "We lock it to keep out vandals - unemployed people from the city."

With tourism unable to provide an income for many remote villages, the blue and purple fields of lavender that unfold like a pleated peasant's skirt beneath the walls of Simiane and Oppedette, perhaps offer the only lifeline to local communities.

A few decades ago, even this industry seemed on the edge of extinction. Farmers, tired of scratching a living out of stony fields on steep hillsides, then searching for an often unscrupulous middleman to buy up the lavender, were giving up. The market was shrinking, as foreign firms turned to synthetic substitutes for their oil, or to ultra-cheap "cloned" lavender from Bulgaria.

But French lavender today is big business once again, as public interest booms in herbs and alternative medicine. Synthetic substitutes are out. In the nearby town of Apt, a few miles from the much-publicised Museum of Lavender in Cordes, most shops heavily promote lavender products. One is devoted to nothing else, selling lavender soap and shampoo, artful postcards showing lavender fields in various shades of purple, oils of course, sprays for the kitchens and pot-pourris. The piped music is of cicadas, presumably to give visitors the feeling of being in a lavender field.

The church has tapped into a burgeoning New Age perception that herbs, monks and alternative medicine are all intertwined. At the Cistercian abbey of Senanque and at Ganagobie, the monks have opened sophisticated shops, selling a huge range of lavender items far removed in quality from English cathedral shop tat. The abbeys also promote books in several languages on monastery herb gardens and the ancient "secrets" of lavender, secrets presumably preserved over the centuries only by the clergy (which wouldn't be surprising, as the abbeys sit in fields of the stuff). Five drops in a glass of wine, I read in one book, can cure "hysterical vapours".

The revival of the lavender industry of Provence is not, however, a mere side-effect of New Age mysticism. Simiane's farmers set up a co- operative to despatch the middlemen. Out, too, went "romantic-looking" scythes (except for festivals) and fat copper stills.

While the tourists trundle round Simiane's pottery shop, the village farmers, sweating in the burning August heat,take their crop to the large and distinctly unpicturesque modern distillery that the co-op has set up on the edge of the village. Mothers and sons join their men, stacking the fast-browning bales into the giant vat.

The undulating lavender fields of Simiane and Oppedette may look as if they are kept on for the benefit of the heritage industry or for tourists, but the product is, in fact, sold direct to Proctor & Gamble and Colgate. The Cooperative Agricole des Plantes a Parfum de Provence and its 290 members have seized almost a third of the total French lavender oil production, three times more than before it was set up 15 years ago.

"Its still a hard living," says Claude Coutant, a 30-year-old farmer, laughing mirthlessly at the notion that the industry's revival has ensured farmers a comfortable life. Perspiration streamed from his brow as the lavender was pitchforked into the vat amid wafts of scalding steam. "Whatever money we make goes back into investing in equipment." Mr Coutant's father and grandfather farmed lavender before him, and so will he. Lavender will guarantee the survival of a way of life, if not prosperity.