My farming adventures began five years ago on a hillside in Tuscany. The rundown property (big understatement) we had just purchased came with a hundred acres and 1000 olive trees. Even though the restoration of the centuries old buildings was years from being completed, harvesting waits for no one. I immersed myself in the camaraderie of farming with family, friends and neighbours, as we threw down nets, climbed ladders, picked olives and relaxed under the majestic trees, soaking in the last of the sun with a bottle of vino at the end of blissful but exhausting days of olive picking. For me, this first experience of working the land was exciting, exhilarating, absolute heaven.
I was soon racking my wee brain for alternative crops to grow on our sunny Tuscan slopes. The long, hot summers are extremely dry and water, or lack of, is often a problem. Grape vines do well as a few others have discovered - just kidding - we sit among some of the world's best wineries. Lavender on the other hand is not typically grown as a crop in this area, (think of Provence and its endless rows of this glorious plant), yet the climate is similar. Why not here? I said to myself.
Spade in hand plus Luciano, my long-suffering farmer, and off we shuffled, planting 20 long rows of baby bushes down a south facing stony hillside. The lavender bushes flourished. I now have more lavender than I can handle. I dry the fragrant flowers and fill silk bags, which I tuck lovingly under pillows for our guests.
Lavender’s natural oils are found in the base of the stalks. They go through a small distillery at a local farm, and drop by drop we extract the oil, which is then bottled. One drop will gently relax the atmosphere in a room, or the tiniest trickle on a pillow will have you melt into the deepest sleep.
The rest of the plant and the flowers are infused over several months in our own organic olive oil to create the creamiest, most delicious lavender body oil. I started selling the oils on-line and to our guests at Villa Reniella to great success, and, as a typical entrepreneur, I was ready for my next venture.
Rosmarinus Officinalis, or rosemary to the rest of us, peaked my interest when I noticed several bushes the size of mid-sized cars growing on the property. Hmmm, I thought, mind whirling. Now what is rosemary good for apart from a sprinkling on a leg of lamb and to flavour the most scrumptious roast potatoes? It may be on everyone’s spice rack but I was astounded that this bush, which is part of the mint family, has been used for centuries for just about every ailment under the sun. It’s now having a massive resurgence. Packed with iron, vitamin C and vitamin B6 these herbaceous woody leaves can be sprinkled over food, infused in water, or their oils rubbed over your body. There are some impressive benefits to our health. As a congestive stimulant rosemary is said to improve memory, help us focus and even increase intelligence. Stress and anxiety, which burdens us all at some point, are relieved with just a few whiffs of rosemary oil. Rosemary has been used as an anti-inflammatory for centuries and I have to say that I agree with our Roman and Egyptian cousins. Working the land is painfully hard on muscles and joints and I now pour rosemary oil into every hot bath. Within minutes I can feel the aches and pains dissolve away.
I have been astounded though at its success as a stomach healer. We have many guests who arrive in Tuscany bringing with them regular upset stomachs, bloating and the rest! We infuse branches of rosemary in jugs of fresh water and suggest the ladies drink as much as possible. Within a couple of days, they have all gleefully announced that their stomachs are calmer.
This list of benefits goes on, from constipation and relieving bad breath to pain relief and even the stimulation of red blood cells. And, there is one treatment that is getting a great deal of attention. Hair growth or lack of it, is a worry for us women as we become menopausal. For the lads, balding always seems a humongous issue. Mind you, I would rather have my man thinning on top than with a ‘rug’ - please guys don’t - just don’t! The cosmetic companies have jumped on the rosemary bandwagon, and there is now a plethora of shampoos, gels and tonics all claiming to be a remedy for hair loss. I have yet to catch my old man, Hans, secretly rubbing the rosemary-flavoured gravy destined for our roast lamb through his scalp, but you never know what goes on behind closed doors! Actually, I have noticed that his locks have been rather shiny and luscious lately.
There are many claims to the magical properties of rosemary, lavender and olive oil, and many are still being researched. On a personal level I feel healthier having them in my life and knowing that they are organic, freshly produced and not synthetic, which is the case of many essential oils on the market. I am proud to take part in producing these simple oils, and so thrilled I can share this bounty with everyone. I am keeping a diary of comments from those who have tried the lavender and rosemary oil so if you do purchase some from our website please let me know how you feel!
Have a wonderful spring everyone,