The Aromatic Blend of Herbes de Provence

These herbs are gathered just as they come into flower and are used by the handful.

| February/March 1994

Herbes de Recipes:

• Potato–Herbes de Provence Soup with Buttered Leeks
• Crab Cakes de Provence
• White Beans with Herbes de Provence Cream
• Grilled Herbes de Provence Salmon Fillet Sandwiches
• One Cook’s Herbes de Provence
• Herbes de Provence Lemon-Chive Mayonnaise
• Lamb Roast with Herbes de Provence Crust
• Spinach and Watercress Salad with Baked Herbes de Provence Chèvre 

On the stony hillsides of southern France grows an array of wild herbs so fragrant that their scent even permeates the bouquet of Châ­teau­neuf-du-Pape, a full-bodied red wine of the region. These herbs are gathered just as they come into flower and are used by the handful to impart their distinctive aromas and characters to meats (particularly stews), poultry, vegetables, soups, and dishes containing tomatoes. For use out of season, they are collected separately, tied in bunches, and hung upside down in a warm, dark place to dry. When they are brittle-dry, the leaves are crushed and the stalks and tougher pieces discarded. The dried herbs are then blended in the desired proportions and stored in traditional terra-cotta jars, ready to use in hearty Provençal fare until summer returns and fresh herbs once again become available on the hillsides.

The composition of this heady, ­aromatic herb blend—herbes de Provence—varies from household to household: it may contain as few as five or as many as eleven different herbs. Thyme is always present, as, more often than not, are rosemary and savory. Fennel seeds and marjoram are usually found, sage and basil sometimes, mint, oregano, or bay leaf occasionally. The most surprising ingredient, however, is lavender buds. We’re most likely to associate this herb with the bath or the linen closet. In foods, we think of it in sweet dishes such as lavender cream or lavender jelly, yet it lends a clean flavor accent to the generally savory character of herbes de Provence.

When I first started working with herbes de Provence, I was dubious about including fennel seeds (not my favorite flavor) and lavender buds, but I needn’t have worried. Each herb in the blend contributes just the right degree of sweetness (rosemary, marjoram, lavender, basil, and mint), or spicy pungency (thyme, savory, fennel seeds, sage, oregano, and bay leaf), or both.

Herbes de Provence blends are available in specialty food shops and large supermarkets as well as by mail order; you may find them packaged in boxes or in attractive clay crocks. For an authentic flavor, check the label to see that the herbs in the blend have been imported from the south of France. One blend that I purchased tasted mostly of thyme and lacked the dis­tinctive character of others I had used. I called the manufacturer and discovered that the herbs had been grown domestically. The blend was nice enough; it just wasn’t herbes de Provence.

In the following recipes, I’ve used herbes de Provence with a wide range of dishes, some of which had never before been anywhere near Provence. The bean dish is based on a chili recipe, and the crab cakes are Cajun in origin. Lamb, of course, is fundamental to Provençal cuisine and takes readily to the traditional herb blend.

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