The Essence of France

Lavender fields forever: It looks like Provence and smells like Provence—but the crowds are few in Drôme Provençale.

From the April 2015 issue of Traveler magazine

Can a rectangle of card stock compel a journey halfway around the world? As I drive on this bright July afternoon past a blur of vineyards and sunflowers on the Autoroute du Soleil (“motorway of the sun”), I reach for the worn business card in my shirt pocket and ponder its power. The names “M et Mme Maurice Reboul” and their titles (producers and distillers of essential oils) are printed on the image of a lavender field. That’s all it took—plus half a decade of pining—to bring me back to France’s Drôme Provençale, a swath of quiet countryside north of Provence proper.

Five years ago, Monsieur Reboul handed me the card while we stood next to a field abloom in lavender. His tanned, angular face—with the ghost of an old scar on one cheek—sweated in the sun of southern France. In the field, a roaring mechanical harvester crept through the plants, shearing them into low, spiky mounds, an army of gray-green porcupines in precise rows marching to the horizon.

I had spotted Reboul while driving through this unassuming pocket of truffle forests, rolling farmland, and ancient hilltop villages. I stopped to ask directions, and we fell into conversation. “I’m 47 years old and have been a farmer and distiller all my life,” he told me, going on to explain that in 1947 his grandfather started the distillery that Reboul now runs with his cousin.

I told him how surprised I was to find such a stunning region unscathed by mass tourism, its roads virtually empty of the motor homes and excursion buses that clog Provence each summer.

“Ah, but Provence is legendary, and we are not,” he said, laughing, clearly happy for that. As we spoke, newly harvested lavender—pungent from volatile oils, redolent of flowers and mown hay and crushed eucalyptus leaves—perfumed the air. Reboul shook my hand and said goodbye. Time to get back to work. He handed me his card and walked toward the field.

“If you ever return during the harvest,” he called out, “come see the distillery in action.”

The warmth of the sun and of Monsieur Reboul, the scent of fresh-cut lavender, a brief 10-minute conversation—that was it. And yet Reboul’s card came to embody all of this region for me and the promise, if ever I returned, of getting to know a radiant slice of rural France—la France profonde—that remains unhurried, uncrowded, authentic. Over the years I’ve kept the card on my desk in San Francisco as a kind of talisman, fingering it often, especially on cold, gray days with fog shrouding the city. Maybe it would get me back to that fragrant place where, I imagined, skies are perpetually sunny and all farmers friendly.

IT IS HOT AND CLEAR during my hour and a half drive north from the Marseille airport to Drôme Provençale, where I plan to stay near the town of Grignan. I hop off the high-speed autoroute and immediately slow to the pace of the countryside and its twisting roads, stopping in St. Paul Trois Châteaux for a cool drink on a shaded square. A fountain splashes, a counterpoint to the crescendo of buzzing cicadas. A wedding couple emerge from a darkened cathedral into the piercing afternoon light, slip into a black 1930s Citroën dotted with pink roses, and zoom away. Already it feels as if I’ve picked up where I left off five years ago.

The weather, however, is another story. On the phone, Monsieur Reboul tells me that tomorrow, Sunday, no one works at the distillery or in the fields, and Monday calls for rain. We make a date for Tuesday, the day before I leave, though he warns that if no lavender has been harvested by then, the distillery won’t be running. The reality of a lavender farmer and distiller’s life, I realize, is less about postcard views than weather forecasts.

That evening, I head for dinner in Vinsobres, a wine-making village on a hillside above the moss green Eygues River. At a bistro table next to the stone wall of a church, I dig into rich fish soup and a robust Provençale dish of fork-tender veal simmered with tomatoes. Swifts scream overhead in pursuit of flying insects. Trickles of condensation run down bottles of chilled rosé. Strangers at adjacent tables and I compare dishes and joke with the servers.

After dark, I drop into the annual village dinner, dance, and pétanque tournament in tiny Solérieux. The ball game is over and the champion crowned by the time I arrive at 10 p.m., and now the entire village sits together on long planks under the stars, laughing, talking, and finishing their meals. A singer armed with a karaoke machine pumps French pop tunes into the warm night air. A scrum of young kids tears by. A boy no more than six years old peels off and approaches. He shows me a large horned beetle he’s caught. “Do you live here?” he suddenly asks.

No, I reply. But I’d like to.

“LAVENDER IS PART of the Drôme landscape but also our French heritage,” Odile Tassi tells me the following day when I visit her farm on the plateau of Clansayes. A former marketing executive from Lyon, with sun-streaked blond hair and a brilliant smile, Tassi now grows lavender for her own line of health and beauty products.

I arrived late for a public tour of Tassi’s farm, having lost track of time during a busy day that took in the sprawling outdoor market of Nyons, a picnic and long country walk under increasingly cloudy skies, and a village vide-grenier (rummage sale) beneath the medieval walls of Richerenches. Raindrops now spit from the steely sky.

“Obviously, you haven’t kept anyone waiting,” Tassi says with a laugh when I apologize for being tardy. Though it’s the middle of lavender season, a time when similar farms down in Provence swarm with visitors, I’m the only one on the tour. Inside, Tassi tells me to sniff three vials of lavender essential oils and choose which I prefer. The first has a sharp aroma, the second almost no smell. I choose the third, a classic lavender scent.

“That’s lavindin,” Tassi says, nodding, “a natural hybrid of the lavande fine, or true lavender, that you first smelled, and the lavande aspic that you sampled next.” Tassi explains that virtually everyone chooses lavindin, which has been grown commercially since the 1930s and is the dominant lavender crop here.

We walk into her fields. The soil is dry and rocky—perfect for the herb—and in the distance a patchwork of purple and blue fields alternates with squares of golden wheat and lush vineyards. I rhapsodize about the scenery, but Tassi talks rainfall, yield, and agricultural pests. She is farmer through and through.

Tassi suggests I try the terrace of a nearby bistro for dinner, and it’s there, between bites of artichoke hearts in vinaigrette and velvety foie gras on toast, that the skies fully let loose. Rain lashes the terrace as diners and waiters grab dishes and flee inside. It storms all night and continues to rain throughout the following day, when a low fog renders the lavender fields gauzy and gray. This is not the sun-splashed land I imagined but one of hushed beauty. Even the cicadas have fallen silent.

FINALLY, the day before I leave the area, the sun returns, creating steam on the still damp road as I drive to Domaine de Bramarel, an estate outside Grignan. There I join trufficulteur Gilles Aymes, his two yellow Labradors, Ebel and Aria, and a handful of visitors for a lesson on growing and hunting truffles.

“Truffles were totally wild until around 1850 when people, including my great-grandfather, figured out how to promote their growth around oaks and other trees,” says Aymes, a silver-haired man who speaks with a pronounced Provençal twang. “And though people associate French truffles with Perigord, more are produced in Drôme Provençale than anywhere else in France.” Even with coveted truffles, I marvel to myself, this region flies below the radar.

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We follow Aymes into an oak grove, where the dogs, who have been trained from the age of nine weeks to love the taste and smell of truffles, immediately paw the ground. Afterward, during a tasting, I give in to their imploring eyes and can’t help but sneak them a nibble.

Late in the day, I finally drive to Maurice Reboul’s distillery, located on a narrow lane near Montségur sur Lauzon. Coming around a bend, I spot the workaday metal prefab building. There’s no steam venting from the smokestacks.

“The fields are still too wet to harvest,” says Reboul after greeting me. He looks exactly as I remember except that his dark hair has gone gray around the temples. “I’m afraid the distillery won’t be working until late tomorrow or the next day.”

That doesn’t matter, I tell him, and in truth it doesn’t. In the place that my imagination conjured around his business card, this turn of events would have been a letdown. But in travel, reality is always more interesting than fantasy, even when real life means gully washers, delayed lavender harvests, and nonoperational distilleries.

For an hour, I follow Reboul around the distillery as he points out its workings, a Rube Goldberg assemblage of pipes and valves and boilers that in one hour can extract oil from flowers. I meet his business manager and wave hello to his cousin. I listen as Reboul describes both the satisfaction of producing highly sought-after essential oils, and—like Odile Tassi—the worries that come with being a farmer. He allows me a glimpse at his life.

Finally, as we’re parting ways, I show Monsieur Reboul the card I’ve been carrying. He shakes his head and smiles, perhaps at the craziness of an American keeping it so long—someone, I’m sure, he has no recollection of ever meeting.

I put the card back in my shirt pocket. Later, I will return it to its spot on my desk. But in truth, I don’t need it anymore. The brightness of memory—and the warmth of real connection—outshine even this cherished keepsake.

CHRISTOPHER HALL explored California’s Central Coast in “Days of Wine and Olives” (December 2013/January 2014). Born in Virginia, photographer DAVID BACHER today lives near Paris. This is his first feature for Traveler.

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