What is Herbes de Provence?

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Jessy Rushing is a Texas gardener who fell in love with herbs after tripping into a rosemary shrub one day. The scent on her clothes cheered her up all afternoon. Her curiosity was aroused and since then her herb gardening has been part investigation, part experimentation and most importantly, part delight.

Although not an instinctive cook, I love trying new recipes and playing with herbs. One recipe I came across mentioned herbes de Provence. How sophisticated sounding! I decided that this merited further investigation. What exactly is herbes de Provence? As Shakespeare noted, “Ay, there’s the rub.” There doesn’t seem to be one particular formula for herbes de Provence, except that it must contain thyme.

Rosemary, marjoram, basil, bay, thyme and lavender complete this blend.
Photo by 427/Courtesy

Herbes de Provence are named for Provence, an area in the southeast tip of France that borders Italy. This area, like so many other Mediterranean locales, is herbal heaven. In fact, practically any Mediterranean herb can be included in a blend of herbes de Provence. The local herbs have long been associated with traditional French cooking, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that herb and spice companies started combining them in a ready-made blend for American markets. In France, the traditional blend rarely contains lavender flowers, while in the United States, nearly all blends include them. The south of France is so well known for its gorgeous lavender fields, the flowers were added to gift shop blends to please the tourists.

I asked Karen Rink, an herbal soap maker who lives in France, for the scoop on herbes de Provence in her area. The blend in her pantry is lavender-less, consisting of rosemary, basil, oregano, thyme, marjoran (Origanum majorana) and summer savory (Satureja hortensis). “I have seen mixtures with less variety,” she adds.

Some cooking authorities believe that the four herbs that make up herbes fines (chives, parsley, tarragon and chervil) should also be in included in herbes de Provence. Others stress that too much oregano or savory will overwhelm the mixture. What’s a girl to do? Experiment! I scurried to my local market, chose two blends from their selection, and then picked spices from my kitchen to blend my own version.

BLEND ONE: Thyme, lavender flowers, basil, marjoram, fennel seeds and rosemary.

The only constant herb in varieties of herbes de Provence is thyme.
Photo by Jessy Rushing

BLEND TWO: Savory, thyme, rosemary, basil, tarragon, and lavender flowers.

Almost any Mediterranean herb can be included in an herbes de Provence blend.
Photo by Jessy Rushing

MY BLEND: 1 teaspoon thyme, basil, oregano, marjoram, plus 1/2 teaspoon sage, fennel seed and rosemary.

Experiment to make your own herbes de provence blend.
Photo by Jessy Rushing

I chose an easy roasted asparagus recipe and made three batches using the different blends. (I really love asparagus!).

Roasted Asparagus with Herbes de Provence

• 1 bunch trimmed, fresh asparagus
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 tablespoon dried herbes de Provence

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.

2. Toss asparagus with olive oil, herbes de Provence and spread on baking sheet in a single layer.

3. Roast at 400 degrees until tender and lightly browned, about 12 minutes.

Flavorful herb blends make this simple asparagus recipe delicious.
Photo by Jessy Rushing

They were all delicious. Roasting brought out the subtle, sweet/smoky flavors of the herbs without overpowering the taste of the asparagus. I prefer the blends with fennel seeds, but that’s a personal preference. 

Further investigation showed herbes de Provence to be very versatile. It can season grilled meats and veggies, be mixed into sauces, soups or stews, or sprinkled into salads.

Still, there doesn’t seem to be a general consensus on what does or does not constitute herbes de Provence. I asked Bird Mangels, an herbalist in southeast Texas for her opinion. “. . . most lovers of herbs develop their own proportions for herbes de Provence,” she explained.  “For me, a lot depends on what is in my garden.” 

Bird likes to toss her mixture on popcorn, mix it into dips or mac and cheese. Whatever the blend, I’m a convert. Spring will find me humming “Alouette” and tending an herbes de Provence bed.

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