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I often wonder how any non-English native speaker learns to speak English with any proficiency. First there is the non-phonetic pronounciation (I mean, c’mon, did YOU know how to say Leicestershire, thoroughly or psyche the first time you saw?); then there is the lack of consistency (through, rough and cough should rhyme, right? And if it’s one mouse many mice, why not one house many hice?). And even if you make it through those, there is the English language’s maddening addiction to idiomatic expressions to contend with – rumour has it there are over 15,000!
A foreign colleague once told me that the most maddening thing about trying to do your job in English is the fact that those of us who speak English as a mother tongue are forever using idiomatic expressions that make no literal sense at all to the uninitiated. Beating about the bush. (What bush? There are no shrubs in the office?) Barking up the wrong tree. (Huh? Who let the dogs out? Or in!). Never look a gift horse in the mouth. (First dogs and now horses too?) It’s not over till the fat lady sings. (Singing in business meeting? And who are they calling fat anyway??). I see her point.
One of my personal favourite idiomatic expressions is that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. It’s remembering this expression that led me to find out that a chap working security on our office building came to his country to do a Masters degree in Economics; and that the chap who rings up my lunch at the till in the nearby supermarket has a burning ambition to start a blog about Nigerian politics. But even I occasionally fall prey to the lure of the visual. In fact, I remember falling in love with a book a couple of years ago purely on strength of the image on the cover. I had never heard of the author or the book, but the image of a field of lavender stretching away under an overhanging tree, the dense masses of blossoms filling practically the entire frame, completely captivated me. The book was Encore Provence by Peter Mayle and the entrancing landscape was, of course, Provence.
Something about the sight of those lavender fields captivated my soul and left a lasting impression. When we got married, a sprig of lavender was the only decoration on the invitation; and atop our carrot cake wedding cake was a small beribboned bouquet of fresh lavender. Clearly, I need to move to Provence: it is today the world’s largest lavender producing region. The Romans first brought lavendedr into the area: Roman soldiers knowing of lavender’s value in wound healing, planted seedlings wherever they travelled during their many military campaigns. By the early 20th century, the value of lavender essential oil in perfume making had been discovered and local shepherds were collecting it to sell to famous perfumeries of Grasse. Just before World War I, perfumers and the French government saw lavender production as a means of keeping people from leaving the area so they cleared the almonds orchards and planted lavender – hence the many acres of land under lavender cultivation in Provence.
I have since visited Provence – exploring the villages perchés dangling spectacularly over their precipitous drops; eating fragrant, steaming bowls of Bouillebaisse by the sea in Nice; marvelling at the nose of the parfumier in Grasse; taking in the breathtaking scenery of the Gorges du Verdon; and eating my body weight in glistening onyx-black olive tapenade. But sadly, I have never visited at the right time of year to see the fields of lavender in full bloom. Note to self: must rectify this oversight!
I was, however, intrigued when the kindly souls at the Vaucluse Tourist Board (Vaucluse being a department in Provence) offered to send me some culinary lavender from Delices du Luberons in Provence and challenged me to come up with a recipe using it. The first time I ate lavender was at the spectacularly lovely Riverbend Lodge near Addo Elephant park in South Africa – I think it was used in a creme brulee – and I was instantly smitten. The taste is not for everybody and if you use too much it is easy to create a dish that smells and tastes like… well, granny’s handkerchief drawer (not the effect one would be going for at a fancy dinner, I suspect!). But used in moderation, lavender flowers add an intriguing note to ice-cream, cakes and desserts. I, on the other hand, had other plans for my lavender. Rosemary is a classic lamb pairing, and like lavender it has a pungent flavour and can be overwhelming if used to excess. So… what’s to stop me combining lamb and lavender? This recipe is childishly simple and truly delicious. Don’t be alarmed if the herbs smell like a sweet lavender potpourri when you crush them: cooking brings about subtle changes in the flavour of the lavender and integrates it beautifully into the other herby flavours. The sweetness of the lamb is perfectly offset by the tang of the herbs and mustard.
And as we like to say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating – idiomatically speaking!
DISCLOSURE: The ldried avender flowers were a free sample sent to me by the Vaucluse Tourist Board.
LAVENDER AND HERB-CRUSTED ROASTED LAMB SHOULDER (serves 2)
1 small de-boned rolled lamb shoulder (about 450-500g)
2 Tbsp (heaped) wholegrain mustard
1 Tbsp dried thyme
1 Tbsp dried rosemary, finely chopped
1 Tbsp coriander seeds, crushed
2 scant teaspoons culinary lavender
1/4 tsp Maldon sea salt (or any coarse-grainer sea salt)
1/8 tsp black pepper
Pre-heat the oven to 190C.
Place the coriander and lavender in a pestle and mortar and crush well (you can also use a spice grinder but do not grind it to finely – you want the mix to have some texture!) Once you have the desired consistency, add the remaining herbs as well as salt and pepper and mix well.
Smear the meat all over with mustard, then coat with the spices, pressing them lightly into the mustard so that they stick.
Place the meat in a small oven-proof dish, uncovered, on the middle shelf of the oven and pour about 30 mls of water into the dish. Allow to cook for 40 minutes – longer if you want the meat medium or well donem but I prefer it on the rare side when there is still a little blood seeping out when the centre is pierced with a knife.
Allow the meat to rest for 5 minutes, then slice and serve with roast potatoes and (in our case) sweet new season Brussels sprouts.