Heaven scent in the lavender hills

Any time now the lavender fields of Provence will be in full flower – creating a sea of purple and a feast for the senses. Alexandra Wood reports

The long grey rows of lavender stretch as far as the eye can see – parallel lines marching off to the horizon, lent perspective by the odd picturesque ruin. In summer, the fields are alive with bees as the fragrant harvest is gathered in for one of France's best-loved products.

But even in the sweet-smelling lavender fields of Provence the spectre of a world dominated by China is never far away.

Growers are concerned that the Chinese have enough land, with the right climate and altitude to start producing the herb more cheaply.

And here in Provence where more lavender is grown than anywhere else in the country, that is serious news.

So far the Chinese product is – rather like their garlic – not good quality, but it still makes the producers uneasy.

Lavender, we soon discover, is a far more complex subject matter than its image – something for your linen drawer – suggests.

Learning about lavender is incredibly easy for the visitor – who only need visit the website of Les Routes de la Lavande to find out visiting farms and distilleries; art workshops and hikes.

We start in Simiane-la-Rotonde, a strikingly beautiful settlement on a hill, built from honey-coloured limestone, which rises from the plain like a mirage, where it is rumoured that a cousin of Prince Charles owns land and grows his own lavender.

The village – surrounded by lavender fields, still a burnished grey in the April sunshine – is overlooked by the old chateau where aromatherapist Jean-Noel Landel has a laboratoire. However, the atmosphere in his eyrie is more like a sorceror's den, with his collection of modern day alembics and what looks likes dry ice swirling into the air from a bowl.

This year for the first time Jean-Noel – who points out his own lavender fields from the rooftop – is giving workshops to teach people about aromatherapy, how to distinguish a cheap oil from the real thing ("At best, it is cut with a natural product or vegetable oil, at worst, with chemicals that can make you sick.") – and most impressively how to make your own cosmetics at home, without the myriad nasties the pharmaceutical companies use.

Lavender, we learn, was used by Cleopatra in ancient Egypt. Cuts or burns can be treated with neat pure lavender oil, as can insect, scorpion or snake bites. "Lavender essential oil will help people who are nervous and can't sleep. It will work on the central nervous system and speed you up if you are sleepy," he adds.

I try his diffuser – a simple gadget with a tube with a hole containing essential oil, topped with an umbrella-shaped piece of filter paper – at home on my partner who rarely sleeps the night through and he reports deeper sleep – but more intense dreams.

Bespectacled Jean-Noel gets more and more enthusiastic as he shows us how to make shampoo from what looks like a jar of creamy honey, but is actually very concentrated soap made from burning ashes, water and fat. He sloshes in sage water, whirring it with a blender and hey presto liquid soap, small bottles which are pressed on us to take home, with a tip to add some sea water to thicken it up.

It's alchemy in action and everyone is deeply impressed. We could go on unravelling the mysteries of what the labels on our expensive face creams don't tell us, but a lavender-based feast awaits at L'Hostellierie du Val de Sault, set in delightful forest setting facing Mont Ventoux, which proudly commands the Vaucluse plateau.

It's delicious, but slightly strange – lavender sorbet with tomato gazpacho with crispy aromatic herbs – is like munching your way through a frosty lavender field. As one bemused diner puts it: "I can't get my head round the fact I'm eating what I have been sniffing all day!"

Next call is Sault where producer Evelyne Poppee shows us that the fragrant lavender bags we store away in our drawers at home are more likely to be made from "lavandin", a hybrid with a stronger camphorated smell, whose oil is used for massaging sore joints, as well as a variety of industrial uses, than fine lavender, with its more subtle scent.

In Provence, about 13,000 hectares are planted in lavendin, the main production areas being the Valensole Plateau, the southern Drome and Vaucluse, while 2,500 hectares are dedicated to lavender.

We try our hand at making small bouquets of lavande bleue, which has the really startling blue flowerheads, clipping the ends off with secateurs.

Her neighbour Thierry Barjot – who is also part of Les Routes de la Lavande – then shows us the traditional distillation process at his farm, using steam to extract the essential oils.

The night's lavender cooking lesson is at a beautiful old watermill – La Ferme aux Lavandes, in Sault – whose water dried up more than two centuries ago.

Catherine Liardet has a charming approach to the workshops she runs from her tiny upstairs kitchen, surrounded by the debris of cooking an evening meal for 10. Everyone is jammed in like sardines in a tin; the lid flies off a jar of freshly-made raspberry and lavender conserve, a glass shatters and aubergine mixture gathers in a pool on the table but Catherine – a cross between Felicity Kendall and Barbara Windsor – is not the slightest bit concerned.

The recipes are simple (bung in frozen raspberries with about the same amount of preserving sugar, juice of two lemons and two tablespoons of lavender flowers and heat through. When the fruit begins to break up it is ready) and tastes good.

By day three we all smell fragrant – we have dined on lavender, smelt the real thing and dabbed on lavender-scented creams. Now I just need to see the fields in flower – for that try the end of June, or beginning of July.