Rose's August Shop Watch: Herbes de Provence
Herbes de Provence
Sous Chef, Valvona and Crolla
Herbes de Provence
A taste of Provence
If you go into the hinterland of Provence, you move to a completely different world-away from the clamour of the Cote d’Azur, to a landscape of rolling hills, craggy peaks and Medieval perched villages. This is true Provence. Climb into this countryside and you will see wild herbs growing on the roadside and carpeting the land. In late spring they are flowering and at their best: the tiny mauve flowers of thyme and farigoule - a wild thyme of the region; the blue of rosemary covering the sprawling bushes; the white of oregano swaying in the breeze; and my favourite: the white or purple flowers of sarriette (savory) pushing up between the cracks of paving stones. These are the herbs of this region’s cooking. These are the herbs of Provence.
Roger Vergé, the renowned chef from Mougins, devoted a whole chapter to the herbs of Provence in his book Entertaining in the French Style said “when I stroll through the countryside of Provence, I often cut a few sprigs of herbs – rosemary, wild thyme or lavender – and put them in my pocket. When I take my hand out of my pocket, it is steeped in the smells of my beautiful countryside”.
In the past the herbs were gathered wild, often with their flowers and left to dry in the sun, in order to have their taste, so important in Provencal cuisine, to last through the winter. When fresh, a bundle of herbs is tied and pushed into a ratatouille or a daube; but the dried herbs take on a more intense flavour and can be stored and used to give that distinctive flavour all year round. Every market in the south of France sells them. A flavour that tastes of the sun.
The blend of herbs which has become known as Herbes de Provence was first brought to the attention of the gastronomic world in the sixties by no other than Julia Child in her bible “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” with a recipe for Poulet Sautéed aux Herbes de Provence, with a mix of basil, fennel, thyme and savory. Then the French brand Ducros started selling it commercially in the 70’s.
There is no one recipe for herbes de Provence. The herbs I have mentioned above are the principal ingredients and the Label Rouge (a French quality assurance) gives the appropriate quantities of 19% thyme; 27% oregano; 27% rosemary and 27% savory. But others too can be added: basil, fennel, marjoram, mint and bay leaves, and the Americans often include lavender but I find this tends to overwhelm the other herbs somewhat. You can make your own by mixing dried herbs together: a teaspoon or two of rosemary, thyme, oregano, savory and maybe one of basil, mixed and put in an airtight container. You can even make a mix to suit what you are cooking: add more rosemary for lamb; more fennel for fish; more basil for tomato. But I am suggesting you buy your herbes de Provence from Provence itself, via the Sous Chef website. They sell the herbs in lovely Provencal fabric sachets which come from the olive oil company Alziari (which I have written about before) in Nice. Their mix is of rosemary, savory, marjoram, thyme and basil.
These will open the door for you to Provencal cooking. Start with a ratatouille to which you add a spoonful during the cooking. Or make Tomates Provençales – ripe summer tomatoes cut in half, and roasted with the herbs, often some breadcrumbs and a drizzle of oil. Rub some oil and then some herbs into a steak or lamb chops or chicken before grilling or barbecuing. Or into a leg of lamb or a chicken before roasting. Add some to an aubergine gratin, or sprinkle some over Mediterranean vegetables before roasting. Add some to a tomato sauce or a vinaigrette. You can even sprinkle some on the glowing coals of your charcoal before barbecuing. Use these herbs all year to taste the Provencal sun.
A year in Provence
Herbes de Provence from Alziari
Price and availability as at 31st July 2022