Travel Writing

Journal / Diary

The Salt of Camargue

September 03, 2005

The Camargue is 85 000 hectares of salt planes and lakes; home to the pink flamingo, black bulls, white horses, red rice and gypsies. It lies to the south of Marseille bordered by Le Grand Rhône to the north. Le Petit Rhône cuts through its southern part (the Rhône being the great river running through Provence giving its name to the wine appellation Côte du Rhône).

Fleur de Sel and La Baleine, refined table products, are ‘harvested’ from the many salt pans. Twenty five centimetres depth of water in April in individual basins, turns from blue to red with the percolation of the rock colour below. The water evaporates during the summer leaving two centimetres of salt. The top layer is scooped out and dumped into the back of a long line of waiting trucks. The trucks take load after load to a processing plant where it is washed, bleached white by the sun and fed up a long conveyor belt to form mountains of salt as tall as a ten story building.

Before the machines, long lines of men in wooden clogs, using wooden shovels ladled the salt into wooden wheelbarrows in the slow and laborious gathering of the crystals. Photos from that time portrayed a harsh life in these ‘salt mines’.

Narrow canals bordering the many salt pans are used to control the water level using a wooden valve system. Before the trucks, these canals doubled as a means of transport with the salt piled on to wooden barges and pulled by horses walking along the banks from source to processing.

Table salt is taken first, in September; then in October and November the ‘road’ salt. So named as it is used to spread on the road in winter to remove the dangerous ice covering. It is also used to turn snowfalls into glassy ski runs.

Anything lying in the salt pan attracts the growth of large salt rock crystals and salt sculpture is an art form. Rows of rock salt crystal covered dress-maker dummies formed an imposing white army in one photo on display. It’s like topiary; a skeletal basic shape turns into a thing of beauty when clothed with the sharp and light catching crystals.

With the next sprinkle of salt, remember the days of men in clogs pushing wooden wheelbarrows in the high heat of summer.

The Essence of Lavendar

August 31, 2005

Nyons in the Drome beckons the senses with its aromatic oils distillery. You can witness first hand the extraction of lavender essential oils.

Early August is the time for the harvest so we missed the sea of purple. We drove past long concave rows, some with small bundles of the picked flower (more stalk than flower), resting on top, sun dried.

The bundles are loaded onto trucks and the lingering waft of lavender stays with you for a kilometer if you are lucky enough to meet one travelling in the opposite direction. The trucks deliver the dried flowers to the distillery.

One person stands on the top of the load and pitchforks it into a large vat buried in the ground. Another pitchfork worker evens out the bundles. Large tyres matching the size of the vat are lowered on to the top to press the flowers tight. The ground pitchfork worker has the task of actually jumping on these tyres to help the process. When the pile can be compressed no more the lid clamps down tight.

A fire, fueled by a mound already ‘stripped’ of its oil (great recycling), roars under the vat, water heated at the bottom filters upwards to create steam which carries the oil to coiled pipes. These pipes run through and are cooled by more water. The steam, once cooled, turns back to water and oil and the oil is extracted.

Lavendar gives way to other aromatic Provencal herbs – rosemary, sage, thyme – and the distillerie is busy for much of the year.

And there is, as always, the opportunity to take something home with you to remind you of your visit and a shop does a busy trade – soaps, oils, pottery, clothing, sachets, postcards in great abundance.