What is Herbes de Provence?

| 2/8/2011 1:24:58 PM

J.RushingJessy 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.

2-28-2011-herbes de provence
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.