Lavender is lovely. In summer, the purple fields of Provence beckon bands of tourists, who book trips to France to take in the undulating waves of color and heady perfume from the flowers.
As it turns out, lavender grows in Georgia, too. And as in France, it’s not only cultivated as an ornamental plant, it’s prized as a culinary herb, with floral flavors and citrus notes that impart earthy complexity to both sweet and savory dishes, and even coffee and cocktails.
Step inside the store at Red Oak Lavender Farm in Dahlonega, and you’ll be immersed in the wafting scent of dried lavender bundles, sachets and wreaths. And, of course, there are bath, body and aromatherapy products lining the shelves, as well as lavender jewelry, stationery and stuffed animals for gifting.
But during a recent visit to Red Oak to meet owner Tina Misko, I was most surprised by the number of food items on offer — including jams and jellies, lavender sugar, lavender salt, Herbs de Provence, lavender shortbread cookies and brownie mixes, and Red Oak lavender honey from the farm’s beehives.
With all that, Misko — who works the farm with her husband, David Duffey, and a few helpers — will be the first to tell you that getting lavender to grow in the heavy, acidic clay soil and high humidity of Georgia takes a good bit of knowledge and a whole lot of hard work. In fact, some six years ago when she first tried, she was told it couldn’t be done.
“Lavender likes alkaline soil, it doesn’t like its roots getting wet once it’s mature, and it doesn’t like humidity,” Misko says. “To make a long story short, I learned how to grow it here by transforming red Georgia clay into well-drained Mediterranean soil. But you can’t have rows and rows of lavender like you see in the fields in France or Washington state. You have to have airflow here, so that’s why we grow in test gardens.
“We grow about 20 different varieties. The culinary varieties have shorter stems, and grow about 12-24 inches. The English lavender, angustifolia, has a sweeter scent. And dried lavender lasts a lot longer, and has a much more pungent smell and taste. I think lavender just makes dishes and drinks more complex and in-depth. The Etowah Meadery used our lavender in a mead, and now Moonrise Distillery is using it in a vodka.”
At the Little Tart Bakeshop in Atlanta, owner and baker Sarah O’Brien is known for her lavender lemon sablés, buttery-crumbly French cookies that pair perfectly with a cup of coffee or afternoon teatime.
O’Brien likes to use lavender in other ways, too, including making lavender sugar to flavor seasonal fruit crisps, and lavender syrup for the almost-famous Lavender Latte at Little Tart. But she definitely has some thoughts about how to make the best of the sometimes overpowering herb.
“I think you need to have some citrus with it, like we do with our lavender lemon sablés with lemon zest,” O’Brien says. “Lavender can be so savory that it gets a deep herbaceous flavor that I feel needs to be brightened up with citrus or a lot of cream. There’s a reason you see lavender in lemon pound cake.
“Also, you need to think about backing off so it doesn’t taste like soap. It can go from intriguing to overpowering if you use too much. Then you’re making potpourri, which nobody wants to eat. The lavender sugar that I make is a teaspoon of lavender to a cup of sugar. If somebody really loves the flavor, you could add a little more, but keep it balanced. And make sure you buy good culinary lavender from a place that sells herbs.”
O’Brien’s recipe for Peach Blackberry Lavender Crisp is both easy and a bit exotic, balancing sweet-tart fruit with lavender sugar for a subtle but surprising burst of flavor. Essentially, though, she sees crisps as an old-fashioned treat to be passed down and revived generationally.
“I am an avid believer in the power of a crisp to make anyone feel like a resourceful, whip-smart home baker,” she says. “As one of my employees said, a crisp is a ‘grandma dessert,’ and grandmas know what’s up. Crisps are also supremely adaptable. The oat topping is the same one we use at Little Tart to top our apple galettes in the fall, though we add a little cinnamon.
“It translates perfectly to whatever fruit is in season, and I think the addition of oats makes the flavor just a touch more interesting than the normal butter-sugar-flour crumb. The lavender sugar could be used to flavor blueberries in a pie, or get mixed into your favorite sugar cookie recipe.”
O’Brien’s husband, Paul Calvert, is a longtime Atlanta barman and a partner in Ticonderoga Club. Calvert is even more cautious about lavender than O’Brien, especially when it comes to using lavender in cocktails. But he loves the Lavender Latte at Little Tart, and he’s been inspired by it, lately.
“Lavender in a cocktail is a story that goes way back, but, if I’m being honest, it’s never one that’s interested me much,” Calvert says. “All of the lavender-and-lemon-and gin-and-honey drinks out there are fine — refreshing and good for a picnic. But they all seem like copies of one another and are often executed with too heavy a hand, leaving the drinker with a Tom Collins some prankster has pumped an ounce of Mrs. Meyer’s hand soap into.”
Calvert’s solution was to make a lavender cocktail that didn’t seem so obvious, namely a take on the ever-popular Negroni.
“I thought what if we tried to incorporate lavender in a drink that doesn’t naturally call for it?” he says. “What if we tried to incorporate it in a stirred drink that was in that kind of late night, dark, sexy family, not the obvious picnic drink?
“It was my wife’s Lavender Latte that made me realize how well lavender and bitter things like coffee or espresso complement one another. So I thought why not take the great bitter cocktail, the Negroni, and see how lavender works with it? I made a lavender tincture, because I wanted a delicate reminder of lavender with an aromatic touch.”
These recipes from Sarah O’Brien of Little Tart Bakeshop and her husband, Paul Calvert of Ticonderoga Club, feature lavender in multiple ways, including lavender sugar, lavender syrup, a Peach Blackberry Lavender Crisp, and a Negroni spiked with a high-proof lavender tincture.
Peach Blackberry Lavender Crisp
“Like a pie, it’s hard to overbake a crisp. You want to see your fruit juices bubbling,” Sarah O’Brien says. “You want your topping to be completely brown and crisped. You want your whole house to smell like lavender and cooked peaches. If you want to dial up the lavender flavor even more, whip some of your leftover lavender sugar into heavy cream to create lavender whipped cream.”
This syrup is delicious in a cup of tea, a latte, or mixed with lemon juice and soda water. It comes together in 5 minutes, plus steeping time. You could also use it as a sweet finish to pound cake — just brush it on a warm cake for a hint of lavender sweetness in the final product.
“One day, I took a sip of the Lavender Latte at the Little Tart Bakeshop, and the combination of bitter espresso and the touch of vanilla in the drink got my wheels turning,” says Paul Calvert. “Lavender is employed ad nauseam in juice-filled daytime drinks. What if lavender could play in something bitter and booze-forward? Keep the gin, sure, but toss out the lemon and the honey. What if lavender is at home in a Negroni?”
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