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Unique Provence Blog
The latest travel news and experiences from
Provence and The Riviera . . .

Philip Haslett

Philip Haslett

On my peregrinations yesterday I stopped of to visit a place that I had been told about many times. Mathieu Lustrerie, a Chandelier manufacturer on the outskirts of the village of Gargas in the Luberon region of Provence. I hadn't stopped there before because I either didn't have the time or simply I couldn't imagine that a light fitting factory could be that interesting...BIG mistake!

The Lustrerie is set in an old Ochre factory in the Hameau des Sauvans near Gargas. There are three main activities in the factory; the creation of new designs, the restoration, with such illustrious clients as the Château de Versailles and the re-edition of classic designs. The activity is overseen by Régis Mathieu the owner and designer who has brought together his expert artisans to create the exceptional Chandeliers, Lamps, Lanterns and Sconces (wall mounted light fixtures).

Régis Mathieu's passion has also led him to create a unique collection of over 250 chandeliers and other lights dating back to the 15th century which can be viewed in the museum just across from the factory. You can visit the factory and museum by rendez-vous. For more information take a look at their websitehere. I hope to return soon for a full visit which I didn't have time to do this time and I will tell you more about the fascinating world of Régis Mathieu and his Chandelier factory!

When you look at the photos in this post you would be hard pushed to imagine that it was taken yesterday in Provence and yet every year in mid-April around the villages of Pierrerue and La Brillanne this unbelievable festival of colour appears only to vanish a few days later.

The tulips are not grown for their flowers but for their bulbs which I believe divide thus increasing the amount of bulbs after flowering which are then resold.

I have to confess I see them every year and yet I still do not know the whole story about how the harvest works... I'll try to find out. So if you are in Provence and are close to La Brillanne take the road towards Forcalquier and a few hundred yards along on your left this is what you will see...

But hurry they don't last very long!

As you are all beginning to realise, I am very partial to the nature that surrounds me and never miss an occasion to get out and photograph what makes Provence so very special. One of the key moments in spring is the flowering of the wild thyme.

The pink flowers give off a subtle perfume, and serve as a delicious flavouring as well as a decorative garnish on many a plate during this period.

It is also picked to make Farigoule, a thyme liqueur which is a very effective digestive after a big meal. I will be picking thyme flowers this weekend to make my annual supply of home made Farigoule but you can buy it from the Distilleries et Domaines de Provence; you can visit their website here. www.distilleries-provence.com

Here are a couple of photos taken this morning showing some interesting creatures I found in amongst the wild Thyme.

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Lavender Season 2013 - Plateau d'Albion

This year the season got off to a bad start. It rained. And rained. And rained. And then it rained a bit more. At my home we turned off the heating at the start of May!

Provence was not a sunny paradise. Then the sun did come out and dried the ground and thanks to all the rain Provence turned into a lush, green paradise.

The poppy fields that normally appear at the end of May and run into June were two weeks late. The cherry harvest, normally over by now, is still ongoing. And the lavender is running at least ten days behind schedule maybe more and that is not so great for the lavender producers but for the tourists who want to admire Provence's blue gold it is fantastic, there should be lavender fields in flower to the end of July.

Today I went for a drive up onto the Plateau d'Albion where you can find fields of true lavender. To make things simple there are two main types of lavender grown in Provence:

1. True Lavender. This is used in cosmetic production, perfume industry and aromatherapy. Its yield of essential oil is about 15kg per hectare (2.5 acres). Lavande Fine or True Lavender grows above 800m in order to obtain the AOP (designate origin label). The colours can vary within the same field from plant to plant as each one is genetically unique.

2. Lavandin. Used for industrial purposes mainly, soaps, washing powders, interior fragrances etc. One hectare of lavandin produces 100kg of essential oil! Lavandin is a natural hybrid from True lavender and Aspic Lavender. It has a higher level of camphor (8% as opposed to 1% for True Lavender) which makes it unsuitable for using on skin or in aromatherapy.

So now you know what is what when it comes to lavender, here are the photos that I took today.

Enjoy! If you would like to visit the lavender fields of Provence I will personally be guiding private tours this coming month. 

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Provence Lavender Under Threat

Despite the seemingly endless rows of lavender on display at the height of summer in Provence all is not well in the world of lavender production.

The cause of the trouble is a miniscule little insect related to the cicada who goes by the name of Hyalesthes obsoletus although there is nothing oblsolete about it.

The insect, a sap sucking leaf hopper, has a particular fondness for the taste of lavender upon which it lays its eggs. The insect and its larvae eat the sap of the plant which in itself would cause no problems, if eating a bit of sap was all they did, but unfortunately they are also the carriers of a phytoplasma, a bacterium devoid of cell walls and therefor dependant on a host, in this case the sap of the lavender plant.

The insect is referred to as a vector, who much like a mosquito, drinks the sap from the plants and in doing so becomes infected and so propagates the phytoplasma to other plants. The phytoplasma in question here is the Stolbur Phytoplasma which also affects potatoes, tomatoes, maize and vines. Once the phytoplasma is in the plant it inhibits growth and eventually the plant becomes too weak to be productive or dies. So there, in short, you have the problem and the scale is huge. A noted rise in temperatures has also caused the proliferation of the insect and at this moment in time no effective solution has been found to eradicate it.

The possible methods to tackle the problem are the following:

• Antibiotic treatment which would attack the bacteria directly, but their use on plants is forbidden in France to avoid the development of mutation and resistance which would only increase the problem. 

• Chemical treatment in the form of pesticides would be almost impossible due to the fact that the larvae live under ground and the adults are present during the flowering season at the same time as honey bees. Also the use of pesticides is, from an ecological point of view, not possible even if it did work.

So attacking the phytoplasma or the insect is impossible. All that remains are ways to discourage the insect from laying its eggs on the lavender and the development of resistant strains of lavender who remain unaffected by the phytoplasma.

So far several varieties have been produced which are tolerant to the attacks but none are totally immune. The replacement of affected plants by these is taking place but it is not an end to the problem. Other experiments which use fine white clay sprayed on to the plants. This seems to discourage the insect who finds the white aspect unappealing.

Research is continuing all the time and research costs money, hence the creation of the foundation to save the lavender of Provence.

I myself am a member of the board and the only representative of the tourism industry. The president is Olivier Baussan the founder of L’Occitane en Provence.

The other members are mostly lavender producers. Through donations the foundation can continue its research into this major problem and as you can see is coming up with answers, but the solution to the problem is not in sight.

Kairos Travel has decided that as of 2014 every for small group lavender tour 100€ per guest would be donated to the Lavender Foundation, and for every lavender day tour or excursion 50€ would be donated.

The donations can continue on of course and you can make a donation however big or small, by following this link: http://www.sauvegarde-lavandes-provence.org/souscription-don-fonds-dotation

The Foundation’s website is only in French for the moment, but the English version is being worked upon and should be online soon.

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A Truffle Hunt in Provence

If you had planned your trip to Provence in the depth of Winter to visit monuments and enjoy wine tastings you may well go home a little disappointed. The trees have lost their leaves, many hotels have shut for the season, the main tourist attractions have little to offer in the way of souvenirs... It's all a bit quiet and even a bit sad...

...or at least that is how it may seem. In fact there are some unique activities that can only take place during the Winter and the highlight of them all is the Truffle Hunt! Of course truffles can be found throughout the year but the finest, most pungent member of this underground fungus makes its appearance from the month of December through to March, I am of course talking about Tuber Melanosporum or the Winter Truffle or as it is referred to in France "Le Diamant Noir", The Black Diamond.

A Short History of Truffles

References to Truffles can be found as far back as ancient Egypt, where we know that Cheops served truffles to visiting delegations. The Greek Theophrastus (327-287 BC) thought that truffles were created by Autumn rains and thunder but it took several hundred years for his countryman Plutarch (46-120AD) to realise that it was water, earth and lightening that made truffles... Since then no new theories are mentioned so I'll stick with that one. Truffles where a common foodstuff in pre-middle age times they were plentiful and all you needed was a pig (a sow) to find them and nearby woodland, but with the increased power of the Catholic church the eating of truffles was soon stopped as the eating of a black object found underground and requiring a cloven hoofed animal to find it could only be the work of the devil. Luckily such superstitions where less adhered to in the Renaissance period by the likes of François I during whose reign the Truffle was returned to its rightful place on the table.

At the time the Truffles on the royal tables originated from Burgundy, then from the South West of France and notably from the Perigord which gave them one of their names "La Truffe du Périgord". At the time truffles were still hunted for by Sows who apparently found the odour of the truffle similar to that of the sexual organs of a male pig. The fact that they have to be reigned in to stop them eating the truffle is either the indication of an extraordinarily amorous sentiment or that of pure hatred for their male counterparts. Whatever the case, with this new information in mind, next time you enjoy a Truffle Brouillade you can shine in society by announcing with authority the similarity to the senses of the truffle and a boars nether regions.

The Birth of Truffle Cultivation

Modern day truffles are "grown", sort of. In 1810, a man called Joseph Talon from the village of Saint-Saturnin les Apt in the heart of the Luberon region of Provence discovered the connection with the truffle and the trees that they grew near, and it was this discovery that led to the development of modern day truffle farming. The technique consists of rubbing mashed up truffles into the roots of small oak trees an then planting them, actually it's a bit more complicated than that but that's the general idea.

Truffle production in France in 1880 was 1320 tonnes, with 60% coming from the South East of France ie. Provence. Today those figures have dropped to a mere 30 tonnes with 80% coming from the South East and the rest from the Perigord contrary to popular belief. The reason for this decline is in part due to the massive toll of the First World War which basically wiped out a generation and in doing so not only took away the work force required, but also the link needed to hand down the information from generation to generation. The Second World War followed shortly afterwards and I personally think that a luxury item like a truffle was no longer a priority in war torn Europe.

A Truffle Hunt in Provence

Nowadays dogs are used to hunt for the truffles as they are easier to control, and it is possible to go on a truffle hunt in Provence which is exactly what I did on Saturday with two travel agents from New York. We had a rendez-vous in the morning with Eric Jaumard who was welcoming a small group and had invited us to join them for the hunt. The day began inside with a bit of history (see above) before heading out into the truffle plantation with his trusty dog.

My assumption was that the dog would find a truffle or two and we would head back inside, especially as this is the the start of the season. But no! The dog, whose name I forget, was charging around and finding truffles with unbelievable regularity. Big ones and small ones were filling Mr Jaumard's bag and after an hour or so we returned to the farm with a pretty good harvest.

From there we continued on our way to other discoveries whilst the group sat down to a truffle meal lasting much of the afternoon. Of course if you would like to experience a truffle hunt followed by a meal, of cooking class we can create a made to measure experience for you. You can contact us using the link on the top right.

I had to share this even if the photo isn't great. Last night I was driving home after seeing a client and happened to find myself faced with the amazing sight of the moon rising behind the Mont Ventoux as the sun went down, transferring the golden hues of the sunset to the moon.

I was in my car in busy traffic and managed to get my camera out of its bag and put on my zoom lens and click out of the window. I didn't have much time to fiddle with many settings as the car behind was getting irate and the brief moment that you see in the photo lasted about 2 minutes before the moon lost its orange glow and rose too high.

The photo is cropped to the essentials and allows you to imagine how stunning it was to see.

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Almond Blossom in Provence

By the time this post appears on my blog the remarkable event it recounts will be over!

Once upon a time the areas of Provence that are now famous for their lavender fields, where then famous for their almonds. Indeed the main crops on the Valensole plateau were almonds and wheat, and the wheat was usually used for animal feed. Growing almonds was a hard job however and climatic conditions and competition from abroad just to name those, soon put a stop to the almond trees and let the lavender take its place. If you take a trip to the Valensole plateau nowadays you will find that most of the lone trees growing amongst the lavender and wheat fields are wild almond trees, witnesses to the past when they were the kings of the land! But times have changed and the almond trees are back. The harvest nowadays is used for essential almond oil and also for human consumption as the almonds are quite delicious, and when incorporated with local lavender honey the resulting nougat is something you won't forget in a hurry! The essential oil is used in skin creams and one of the biggest clients is L'Occitane en Provence whose custom ensures the survival of the local harvest.

Below are a series of photos that can be found on our Flickr page of this years almond blossom. What is quite amazing is the scent given off by the flowers which smells of honey straight from the jar!

Now the sun has made its comeback after a long cold and wet winter, it is time for me to get back on the road to bring you some of the hidden secrets and some not so secret but so beautiful that they can't be missed when you come to visit Provence.

Dry stone construction is very commonplace across Europe. When man had to build a wall or a hut without cement, he soon figured out the way to master dry stone construction techniques.  In Provence dry stone construction is everywhere. In Gordes you can see the impressive walls as you drive up to the village, there is of course the Village des Bories, the word "Borie" being the name for a dry stone hut, usually round but sometimes square.  In La Haute Provence, especially around the villages of Forcalquier and Mane there are "Bories" (which locally they can Cabanons Pointus) scattered around the woods and hills and are often the surprise encounters of an afternoon walk, but as you approach the higher ground of the Montagne de Lure and its surrounding hills then things become serious! 

The construction of dry stone huts was at its high point in the 19th century. Shepherds would build them to keep their stores, tools and even a sick sheep, the huts would keep them dry and warm in the winter and keep them cool and give them protection from the powerful sun in the Summer. The ones around Forcalquier and Mane didn't need to be too big as they were only really used during the day but as you went further from habitations the huts became barns and marvels of dry stone architecture.  On the area around the Montagne de Lure around 130 of these constructions were built. The main construction was either of several Cabanons alongside each other with an arch way between each instead of a solid wall. They were big enough to shelter the flock, alongside was a smaller one for the shepherd, which had a fire place to cook and keep warm. A wall was constructed with one or two entrances to keep the flock in at night and the predators out.

The photo shown are of the Bergerie de la Gardette near the village of Saumane, scene of my familly picnic yesterday. In the summer Mr Vinatier, the owner brings his flock of 600 sheep up to graze and the Bergerie relives its past. 

There many other Bergeries in the area, notably on the Contadour. In association with local hotels and hiking guides we have put together a unique programme with a discovery of the buildings followed by a  candlelit supper in side one of the larger ones. This can be followed by a star gazing session with Slim Hamdani the astrophysician.

  Don't hesitate to contact us for more information.

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Hot Air Ballooning in Provence

I never thought I would ever write an article on Hot Air Ballooning in Provence! Don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't like it, au contraire, I have been flying hot air balloons commercially in France since 1991 and I continue to do so on an occasional basis as it is in my blood!
However there is one thing that I do not enjoy, or at least I had convinced myself something to that effect, and that is being a passenger. This is why I have only ever been in the passenger seat two or three times in the last 22 years and that is why I could never write an article on the joys of a Hot Air Balloon ride in Provence, because my perspective is that of a pilot. 
Last week all that changed...

I had booked places for a balloon ride in Provence as I was receiving a journalist and there is no better way to admire the region than on a hot air balloon ride and of course this meant that I would have to  fly as well. 
I met the balloon team at 06:15AM and remembered another reason why I had stopped ballooning full time! The balloon we were flying in was the biggest of France Montgolfières balloon fleet and the latest of the L'Occitane en Provence hot air balloons. 
The pilot was Max Duncomb who I have known for a long time (we both worked as ground crew for Buddy Bombard's balloon adventures in 1990) so I knew I was in good hands. 
Max has a vast experience and has flown all over the world, but watching him prepare the balloon, inspect it and inflate it as a mere onlooker just seemed a bit strange, but very soon a bizarre transformation occurred and I became a passenger, I listened to the pre flight safety briefing instead of purposely chatting to the crew just to show that I knew it all. I felt strangely excited as the huge balloon left the ground and slowly took the skies, even though I had done so as a pilot well over a thousand times. I marvelled at the Alps, silhouetted in the distance, photographed the Mont Ventoux and the Montagne de Lure for the umpteenth time. I even think I went "wow" as Max demonstrated  his skill as he played in the gardens of the Prieuré de Salagon, barely brushing the treetops. I waved to onlookers and I nearly clapped at the perfectly smooth landing (some claim that I did, but that is pushing it a bit!).

I really enjoyed it, and will do it again, as a passenger but only if I am sure of the experience of the person flying the balloon, which is a no brainer! Luckily France Montgolfières has the strictest rules for pilot selection in the country, every pilot has experience outside of France stretching across the five continents. The in house training is rigorous and the company has been around and has an unblemished record for over 25 years which in itself is almost enough. Of course I have worked for them for many years and so my appreciation could be considered biased by some. It is not. However I do work with other balloon companies in Provence whom I have flown with and can vouch for personally. Their links are at the bottom of this post.  Hot Air Ballooning in Provence is magical, the weather is more often than not perfect (OK this Spring has been wet windy and generally awful, but it is very green!) and you really can see the Alps and the Mediterranean from the basket on a clear day. Flights are only programmed in the mornings so be ready for a ridiculously early wake up call, but it is worth every minute! When I was flying I used to get asked questions on the best times of the year to fly etc. and my answers would be fairly vague as we needed passengers all year round, so I would sell the merits of all the seasons, never putting one ahead of another. But there are a few moments in the year not to be missed, and these are mine in order of preference. 

 

  1. The end of Spring/ beginning of Summer. (end of May and beginning of June... ie. Now)  After the spring showers (this year it's downpours) the nature in Provence comes to life like nowhere else. Wild orchids, flowering thyme, the bright green fresh leaves on the local stumpy oaks, little lambs gambolling in the fields (they go great with the wild thyme!), the last snow on the Alps and because the temperatures are not at their maximum there is less haze and the visibility is often very good. 
  2. Mid-Autumn. Haute Provence, indeed Provence in general,  is a very wooded area, and the trees are mostly deciduous. The colours of Autumn are stunning and the other added advantage is that the sun rises later so the morning wake up call is a bit more civilised! To see what I mean about the colours see this post : Autumn Colours of the Luberon
  3. The Lavender season. First of all let me issue a warning. Since Hot Air Balloons cannot be steered, there is no guarantee that you will fly over a Lavender field. But to tell you the truth it doesn't really matter. The pilot will always try to choose a take off spot which will allow you to fly over the fields but as you climb up into the sky you don't look down, you look around you, and there you will see the purple fields making up the patchwork of Provence. Once you have flown and have been able to appreciate the importance of the lavender harvest, then I recommend you get in your car (or book a tour with me!) and discover the lavender close up. Ballooning allows you to see things from a different point of view, and to approach things from a safe distance (like lions in the Masai Mara). But when it comes to a crop like lavender in Provence, or vines in Burgundy you get an overall vision of the beauty of the region before discovering it by yourself  on the ground, which is not as easy with the lions in the Masai Mara!
  4. The rest of the year! Yes, although the highlights of the season are listed above ballooning in Provence is always a magical moment and is a "must do" when you next visit.

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