Paula at Ferme de Gerbaud herb farm LourmarinTucked in a beautiful hidden valley just outside Lourmarin, the Gerbaud herb farm offers fascinating guided walks through wild countryside, with insights into everything to do with herbes de Provence along the way.

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This is a delightful and unusual excursion if you're staying in the village (and well worth a trip from further afield too).

Peacocks strut around the farmhouse veranda and friendly dogs lope up to greet you as you arrive. Paula Marty worked in the travel industry until she inherited this 25 hectare / 62 acre estate, where she has lived since 1998.

The location was idyllic. But there was a catch. While Lourmarin, irrigated by the Aigues Brun brook, is green, lush and even slightly marshy, Gerbaud is entirely arid, with the poorest, stoniest soil in the area and no water source.

Paula jokes that it's all a bit like Jean de Florette, where the main character's farm is the only one in the region with no water (not that she's accusing her neighbours of the sabotage described in Marcel Pagnol's classic story!) Even the house has no mains water - it's supplied by a deep nearby well.

Summers are blistering hot and often it doesn't rain for three months. No wonder that when Paula moved in the land hadn't been cultivated in nearly 40 years.

Paula at Ferme Gerbaud2But, if life gives you lemons, you make lemonade - or, in this case, grow something that loves the heat and dislikes rich soil and regular water.

Something that, in fact, thrives in difficult conditions: provençal herbs. "They ask for so little and give so much," Paula says.

The visit to Gerbaud involves a leisurely 90-minute walk through its aromatic fields of rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage, marjoram, savory and lavandin, a lavender hybrid.

Wear comfortable shoes, of course. But the visit is not strenuous (the farm even flags itself as wheelchair-accessible) and there are plenty of stops along the way to smell and taste the herbs and listen to Paula talk both knowledgeably and passionately about them.

Herbs in Provence have long been used, not only as condiments in cooking but also for medicinal purposes. In the era before refrigerators, the famous bouquet garni - a bundle of bay leaves, rosemary and thyme - had a practical purpose: the bay is an antiseptic while rosemary and thyme are both aids to digestion.

On the other hand, the mix known as "herbes de Provence" isn't traditional at all. It was a marketing tool dreamed up in the 1960s by the Ducros herbs and condiments company.

That mix consists of rosemary, thyme, savory and oregano (some variants also include lavender). But oregano is grown in Italy rather than being native to Provence, Paula points out. Originally a purist who refused to cultivate it herself, she eventually caved in and planted oregano, as her visitors seemed to expect it.

And were you aware that those cute little souvenir packets of herbes de Provence all prettily wrapped in traditional provençal fabric are unlikely to have been grown, actually, in Provence?

Logo Label RougeUp to 95% of these mixes come from Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa and even China. Poland is the biggest producer of thyme in the world, Paula says. If you want the real thing, look out for the Label Rouge, or Red Label, an official French government seal of origins and quality.

Paula's own herbs don't have the label: like many small-scale producers, her individual methods don't meet a rigid bureaucratic list of requirements and only three larger co-operatives in the region have the Label Rouge.

In 2014 thyme from Provence was submitted for another official label, an IPG (Indication géographique protégée) which, when confirmed, will mean that only a specific variety of thyme grown under certain conditions in a delimited area of Provence can be sold as thym de Provence. So beware of imitations!

Paula's herbs aren't engorged with water. Instead, they have a high concentration of essential oils, which the plants produce to protect themselves from the heat, and extremely intense perfumes and flavours. They are, incredibly, harvested by hand, using a hedge-cutter (Paula cultivates the farm alone).

Insider tip for the herb farm of GerbaudPaula accepts applications for six-month internships. Learn all about herbs in a fabulous environment! More details from This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The yield per hectare at Gerbaud farm is only a third that of herbs grown in irrigated field, and selling them at the local co-operative, which pays by weight, wasn't an option. So Paula decided to sell the herbs herself in the little farm shop, where you can also buy home-made preserves, honey, essential oils and books.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

The visits last around 90 minutes, and are held three times a week in summer and once a week in winter; check the website for details.

Paula on the terrace at Ferme GerbaudPaula does these tours in English too, by request. Groups of between two and 25 people are accepted and small parties don't need to reserve (though it is requested for larger groups).

And, on Thursdays in summer, you can sign up for a home-made evening meal at the farm, with three courses of simple country recipes, wine and a digestive herb tea afterwards.

Where: The Ferme de Gerbaud, Campagne Gerbaud, F-84160 Lourmarin. Tel: (+33) 4 90 68 11 83. Website for the Ferme de Gerbaud

How to get there:From the centre of Lourmarin, take the chemin d'Aguye leading north-east out of the village. At the first fork in the road, take the left fork along the chemin de Gerbaud. Click here for a map.

The Ferme de Gerbaud is about 3 km / just under 2 miles out of the village at the end of an unmade (and rather bumpy!) road. There's plenty of parking.

The official regional website Vaucluse Tourism in Provence includes a guide to the Ferme de Gerbaud and other attractions in the area.

Photo credits: all pictures © SJ and RWS for Marvellous Provence.

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