If you have ever been lucky enough to see the fields of lavender in Provence, France, in full and glorious bloom you will know what a wondrous sight this is. I have a little patch of lavender in my garden that is at its best right now, the stems topped by clusters of little flowers in full bloom, their perfume carrying across my garden, and just the most beautiful splash of colour in my herbaceous border.
‘French’ lavender has become quite popular in recent years, as some people think it a bit more showy, but I prefer the traditional kind we grow in England, which also has a stronger fragrance. Lavender is well known for its healing properties, particularly for its calming and soothing effect as an essential oil dropped perhaps into a bath, or a few drops onto a pillow at night to aid sleep. But the healing properties of the whole plant – flowers fresh and dried – has been known since the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans and it’s said to help all kinds of ailments.
For me it evokes such a strong memory of France. I’ve never forgotten being in Provence about 10 years ago and having a wonderful dessert in Avignon sitting under a navy-blue, star-studded sky one night – three creme brulees: one flavoured with thyme, another with rosemary and a third with lavender. Last year, at this same time, I thought of this and decided to make some ice cream with the lavender in my garden. I have to confess it was a great failure. I put in far too much lavender (despite doing quite a bit of research before I started) and ended up throwing most of the ice cream away. This year, I approached the ice-cream making with more care. I would have to put in far less fresh lavender and taste the milk in which it would infuse quite often to make sure it didn’t get too strong. I picked just three of the best-looking stalks of lavender. I brought 300 ml whole milk to boiling point, turned off the heat and added the flowers.
When making the Lemon & Basil Ice Cream, which is a favourite, I let the basil and lemon zest infuse for an hour. I tested the lavender after 10 minutes. Already it was quite strong. I left it for another 5 minutes and decided that was enough. Meanwhile, I whisked 4 egg yolks and 150g of caster sugar together until thick and pale. I strained the milk into the mixture – throwing away the lavender sprigs now – and added 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract paste. I whisked it all together and transferred to a clean saucepan and slowly cooked it, stirring all the time, until it thickened a bit. Test by seeing if it coats the back of a wooden spoon and leaves a visible trail with your finger.
I let the mixture cool and then whisked 150 ml of whipping cream lightly, till it just started to thicken. I added this to the custard and left it in a jug in the fridge for a little while to get quite cold before churning in the ice-cream maker. Then I churned it till thick and transferred to a freezer container.
It wasn’t intended as part of my Cafe Gourmand yesterday as I’d already made the Lemon & Basil Ice Cream for that. I’d partly been using up the rest of the cream and milk I had (I only buy full-fat milk for ice cream; it’s too rich for me in tea or coffee). But then I remembered the lavender ice cream experiment last year and decided this was a perfect opportunity to try again. I therefore took the lavender ice cream out of the freezer as well as the lemon one last night. As we sat down to dessert I asked everyone if they’d like to try it. Jonathan and Lyndsey had been the guinea pigs who got to sample my failed attempt last year. This year’s was pronounced far superior – in fact, excellent and delicious. Tonight I wanted to try a proper serving after my supper. I decided to try making a little decoration by making a small amount of sugar syrup (2 tablespoons caster sugar and 4 tablespoons water boiled till thick) and dropping in a few fresh lavender flowers.
By the time I came to eat, the syrup had formed a light caramel glaze around the flowers and they not only looked pretty on top of the ice cream, they tasted good too. I sat in the garden with the ice cream, close enough to the lavender bush to enjoy its scent drifting over the warm summer air to my table.
It really was a taste of Provence. It tasted absolutely gorgeous and wonderful. The lavender taste was strong but for me, just right, blending with the creamy ice cream and slight taste of vanilla. This won’t be something I can recreate in the same way in the winter (the dried flowers would work but not be quite the same), so while summer is with us, I think I may make more and enjoy the best of my lavender bush!