Elegant lavender-infused foods from Picnic Girl treat the eyes and tastebuds

Hélène Bouchard has a taste for the exquisite. She was on-site for the entire construction of her charming lavender-coloured home in Stanley Bridge, inspecting building details with keen precision. Before moving to PEI in 2014, she and her husband ran a successful, holistic training studio in Montreal; her focus being on classical dance and endurance sports. So when she decided to switch gears and become a food producer, it’s no surprise she chose a niche market.

She arrives in the cafe we’ve arranged to meet with a bag of her exquisite treats in hand. She orders a cup of steamed milk, removes a bottle of lavender syrup from the bag and adds a few tablespoons to the milk. This is the first time I’ve tried a lavender latte and it’s both unfamiliar and deliciously calming. Reminiscent of vanilla but more delicate. Sweet, but not too sweet. Floral, but not overwhelmingly. It puts any hot chocolate I’ve had to shame.

Helene Bouchard with one of her four Italian greyhounds //submitted photo

While she may not be the only lavender farmer on the Island, Bouchard is unique in her focus on developing edible products. Although lavender is well-known in North America for its health and beauty benefits, its culinary uses have been largely unexplored. Encouraging people to broaden their perspective of lavender as a beautiful, aromatic and flavourful herb has been an important aspect of her business development.

“In Europe, you eat with your eyes,” says Bouchard, making the point that in many cultures it’s natural to consider presentation and taste as equally essential in everyday food preparation. Her business name, Picnic Girl, came from her reputation amongst friends for creating beautiful picnics for events and gatherings. This knack to integrate beauty into food is evident in the many creative speciality products she makes, including syrups, jams, jellies, fudges, chocolates, cakes, among many others.

The beauty of the plant set against the vibrant green of a PEI summer, and its medicinal qualities to calm nerves and ease digestion, are main reasons she was drawn to growing it. She currently has three varieties: Hidcote Blue, Munstead, and Phenomenal. Similar to a winemaker, she’s selected each of these for specific purposes in the production of essential oil, cut flowers, or edible goods. Her fine attention to detail allowed her to synchronize her production in order to have fresh bouquets ready for September weddings, when most lavender plants have already been cut.

Fields of lavender are fragrant and beautiful //submitted photo

Last year marked the first for her production of essential oil, since it takes about three years for plants to reach maturity. The process requires flowers to be harvested early in the morning and delivered to Montreal within twenty-four hours. Bouchard’s careful attention to detail in growing and handling her plants once again paid off. The five hundred plants she grew produced the same quantity of oil as that more typical of ten thousand. Those who processed her flowers said the scent was something they’d never smelled before. Bouchard wondered if it could be attributed to the high quality of her soil, or perhaps the salt air. She said the smell of lavender from the Montreal delivery a few months back still lingers in her delivery truck.

In addition to lavender, she also grows a selection of herbs and edible flowers including rose, calendula, chamomile, Moroccan mint and lemongrass, all chosen for their medicinal benefits. These appear in her speciality products such as pear and chamomile jam, rose-infused syrup and jam, herbal teas, as well as a dangerously good sea salt caramel. Her products have been showcased in creations from Donuts By Design in Cavendish and Kreneemkookies, a designer cookie company in Montreal. They have also appeared in Lupin Studio & Gift Shop in Stanley Bridge. You can purchase products by special order via her Facebook or Instagram pages, or find her at next year’s Farm Day in the City.

Picnic Girl produces syrups, and other delicious edible products //submitted photo

For the coming year, Bouchard will be trialing a white variety of lavender, Ellagance Snow, and introducing some new jams, jellies and surprises too. Above all, however, she’ll strive to keep a balanced life. To grow and tend to her plants by hand, develop her products in the kitchen, and be her own sales rep takes a lot of time, effort and coordination—especially given the short window that fresh lavender is available. Yet somehow she manages to pull it off, with the endurance of a professional trainer and the grace of a classical dancer no less.

About Tara Callaghan

Decisions are not Tara’s friend. For this reason her passion cannot be reduced to one subject. She has always needed to write, keeping a journal since she was in the single digits. Her career began studying ecology and creative writing. From there she went on to study Landscape Architecture, working professionally for the last 10 years. More recently she launched Little Victory Microfarms; a small farm in Charlottetown and New Glasgow, PEI. With her mother, they grow a wide variety of fresh herbs and vegetables for market and wholesale.
While continuing to feed her passions for designing landscapes and growing food, Tara also feeds her passion to write though an eclectic blog and articles for Salty.

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