The Belgian province of Limburg is an expanse of green fields punctuated by neat red brick towns. Although Brussels is a much more laid-back and calm city in comparison to London, Paris or Berlin, as I stroll through the woods near Hasselt, Limburg’s capital, I feel as if I just left a bustling metropolis. It’s all serenity, stone church spires and the soft rustle of leaves in the trees lining the river. And the rich perfume of lavender.
Although lavender is usually associated with Provence, there is a 4 hectare farm near Herkenrode in Limburg, and it’s open for the summer. “Yes, we have lavender in bloom, and it’s a genuine variety, not lavandin,” I was told by a lady at the nursery. “Please visit before we harvest it.” The following weekend my husband and I drove one hour to Limburg to see the lavender fields of Belgium.
If you have only experienced lavender in soaps or sachets, the scent may not seem exciting–camphorous, with a pronounced green salty note. Lavender in full bloom is a different story. Even before you see the pale violet fields, you can smell a warm floral aroma with the sweetness of hay and toasted almonds. The camphorous and green leafy notes are noticeable too, but their sharpness only enhances the languid richness of fragrance in the air.
By mid August, one half of the fields were already harvested, but the plot left to bloom attracted all the bees from the province. I too stuck my nose into the neat sheaths of purple flowers and the strength of the perfume took me by surprise. It was like the lavender I was familiar with from the perfumer’s organ but brighter and fresher.
To capture its essence, lavender can be turned either into absolute or oil. Absolute requires a complex process with several steps, and while it’s longer and costlier, it preserves the floral notes of this aromatic herb. Alternatively, oil is steam-distilled, and the result is a fresh and camphorous essence. You can compare Caron pour Un Homme and Impact de Caron to see what a plush floral accent the absolute gives to the latter. Or try by Kilian’s A Taste of Heaven and Amouage Memoir Man for a similar velvety lavender sensation.
While the absolute is a special material in a perfumer’s palette, the oil is much more versatile (and less expensive). That’s the final end for Limburg lavender, and if you time your visit well, you can watch the process of distillation. I didn’t, and after walking through the fields, I turned into a scented garden. Besides several varieties of lavender with distinctly different odors, the garden was a place to discover a variety of aromatic plants. We spotted rosemary, marjoram, thyme, nepitella, oregano and labdanum (yes, the same plant giving us the dark and fudgy amber accords). I brushed the silvery branches of santolina, a herb used in the Middle Ages to cover church floors and drown out the odors of humanity, and the bittersweet, piney fragrance shimmered in the air. An unexpected whiff of the Mediterranean in the heart of Belgium.
Besides lavender fields and the scented garden, the premises also include a cafe with homemade fruit pies, a vegetable garden and a labyrinth hiding ornate flower beds. The late summer roses were in bloom. The sky promised rain but then it changed its mind. It became the same color as the lavender field below.
A body of a hapless lavender lover lost in the labyrinth? No, just some modern art.
3511 Hasselt – Stokrooie
T +32 475 71 58 25
Photography by Bois de Jasmin