Long Islanders find innovative culinary uses for lavender, “a flower from heaven”
Written By McKenzi Thi Murphy
On a dreary Sunday morning, a misty rain falls over the expansive green-tinged fields. Though they have not yet borne flowers, the damp plants, placed in perfectly spaced rows, give the air a subtle herbal scent, lulling visitors into a state of soothing bliss. As April showers bring May flowers, so too does it bring the vibrant green back to Lavender By the Bay in East Marion, though blooming season does not begin until early June.
Consistently listed as one of the best lavender farms in the country, Lavender By the Bay began with a Frenchman who grew up on a farm in the south of France.
“He has the heart of a farmer,” Susan Rozenbaum, the farm’s president, said.
In the late 1980s, Serge Rozenbaum and his family purchased a farm on Long Island that has since grown to 17 acres with over 80,000 plants.
“You have maybe forty kind of English lavender,” Rozenbaum said. They grow about twenty different varieties on the farm. “Now lavender, it’s very important. When you smell lavender, the scent goes straight to your brain and impact your well-being. It’s known there’s no filter between what you smell and your brain. It’s almost like a drug.”
When harvest time comes, some of the long purple stalks are bundled and dried to be sold either in bunches, infused in soaps and lotions, or sewn into handmade sachets.
Lavender By the Bay also sells lavender sugar, extract and honey they make from their own hives. The herbs they don’t use in their own products are distributed to buyers across the Island and beyond. This lavender is part growing trend to add the plant’s flowers and oil into various food and drinks to promote healthier living.
“The lavender that I use is the dried lavender,” Anne Lyndon, a local baker, said. “I’ve been using it in my scones. The flavor is a lot better; it has good flavor. It tastes pretty nice. It’s sort of unique because you don’t really get lavender scones, I’ve never seen them anywhere.”
A local organic farm takes baking with lavender one step further. While teaching a cooking class at Sang Lee Farms, Kathleen Shewan showcased a jar of sugar infused with a lavender sachet. This contains the flowers while still giving it a nice aromatic scent.
“If you just add lavender flowers to your baking it gets you really a strong flavor and your baked goods can end up tasting like hand cream or soap,” Shewan said. “It knocks you over the head.”
By utilizing a sachet, recipes are given a little boost while still remaining palatable. In addition to the sugar, Shewan infused milk with the herb and added it to her shortbread cookies.
“[The cookie] was not overpowering,” Amy Duryea, who attended the class, said. “I’m not a tremendous fan of lavender scent, but it was not overpowering. With the chocolate over it, it was absolute perfection.”
Not simply limited to baked goods, however, this northern Africa-native plant can be easily infused in almost anything. Including, as one local ice cream maker found out twelve years ago, ice cream.
“In the beginning when I used to make the ice cream, I used to get lavender flowers [from Lavender By the Bay] and just put them in the milk and let them cook overnight,” Choudry Ali, the owner of Magic Fountain, a homemade ice cream shop in Mattituck, said.
At first patrons were wary of this strange new taste, but gradually Ali experimented with different flavor combinations and now lavender honey is one of his most famous ice creams. Now, demand is so high Ali cannot keep up and has modified his recipe to use food-grade lavender oil rather than the time-consuming infusion process.
“Most of the people, they’re trying it first time,” Ali said. “They’re not used to the taste of lavender. So, sometimes you get funny faces, but a lot of people are like “oh my god, that’s so good.”
Combining lavender with honey has been a success for nearly all who have tried it. Though Lavender By the Bay’s special brand is naturally made from the hives – the bees gather nectar solely from lavender plants – most honey is specially blended.
“One bee only produces 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime,” Neal Wechsler, the owner of Beewitched Bee, said. “A pound jar of honey takes 768 bees their entire lives to make that one jar.”
Using Lavender By the Bay’s plants, Beewitched Bee steeps their honey and regularly stirs the mixture for several hours. One of 24 distinct flavors, lavender is one of the more popular ones, along with cinnamon, ginger and turmeric.
“Lavender helps people relax,” he said. “By doing honey lavender, people can add it to green tea at night.”
For those looking for a more adult-inclined beverage, however, lavender can also be used in cocktails. At Restoration Kitchen and Cocktails in Lindenhurst, Billy Miller has created a house-made lavender syrup to add to their drinks, including a lavender Hendrick’s gin and a lavender margarita.
“I’ve always believed that lavender has a very calming aspect in it, whether in an aroma or in a cocktail,” Miller said. “The color that comes from it when you do boil it down makes for a light on the eyes cocktail that intrigues everyone when they come in.”
The restaurant has been serving lavender drinks for about a month and a half, and have just recently switched over to their spring menu. The aromatic herb is coming around as a completely new flavor in the cocktail program, he said.
But long before the trend of eating and drinking lavender, the herb has been used far and wide in the medicinal world. Much of the modern usages of lavender stems from extensive historical precedent.
“Lavender has been used for centuries,” Lata Chettri-Kennedy, owner of Flower Power, an herb shop in Manhattan, said. “You can take an alcohol extract of lavender and add 2 percent essential oil and make lavender spirits which can calm you down and settle your stomach too.” Nowadays, she said, it is most commonly called upon in aromatherapy.
“Lavender is sort of the mother of all essential oils,” Jill Griffin-Hughes, the founder and aromatherapist of Flourish Aromatherapy, said. “Lavender is this little power plant.”
Lavender can ease headaches, treat scars, reduce anxieties and within aromatherapies it can be blended clinically to be tailored to each client, she said. The essential oil is then used in products such as aromatic mists, massage oils or diffusers. Eating lavender has less of a benefit than traditional usage.
“You need about three pounds of lavender to get about one ounce of essential oil,” she said. “If I can get you to smell something and it changes your reality for three seconds, well then I’ve changed your mood. So there’s definitely an impact from eating it, but not at the dosage level.”
Surprisingly, despite the general belief that lavender provides extensive health benefits, research conducted thus far has not been conclusive nor widely applicable enough to scientifically prove it.
“People should be careful about adding lavender oil to their own baked goods, beverages, etc. because of possible safety concerns,” Carol Haggans, a health consultant with the Office of Dietary Supplements, said.
The recommended dose is no more than a few drops, though there is no established safe level. Nevertheless, there is no real risk to the plant, she said, and simply recommended talking with a healthcare provider before using any herbal products.
With lavender season just around the corner, and the bees buzzing with unspent energy, Long Islanders can enjoy the taste and scent of the aromatic flower, medicinal value or not.
In the busiest times, over a thousand people per day will wander the luscious purple fields at Lavender By the Bay. And as Serge Rozenbaum looks out across the foggy field, he inhales deeply with a pleased smile.
“Lavender,” he says, “is a flower from heaven.”