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Herbes de Provence

"When tidying up your herbs at the end of the summer, cut lots of each, tie them in bundles, dry in a cool, dry, airy place and turn them into enough herbes de Provence to see you through winter."

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

You don't have to go to Provence, and buy one of those cute little bags of herbes de Provence to get the real flavour of Provence. It's right there in your own herb garden - or actually on the supermarket shelf. And don't feel bad about buying a jar of McCormick's herbes de Provence, because unwittingly you are buying the original - dare I say 'authentic' version?

The story is a marginally unexpected one, but it does explain why I found no reference at all to 'herbes de Provence' in Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking which was first published in 1960. There was no such thing.

Really the term 'herbes de Provence' means just that - the herbs of Provence, and Provençal cooks use them, mostly fresh, as takes their fancy and it was always so.

"The chefs who have defined Provençal cuisine, based on what’s been coming out of this region’s home kitchens for years and years, had been and still appear to be content just to add the individual herbs and record the two, three, or four different spices in their recipes – as has been done for generations." Provence WineZine

Mind you, you won't generally find a lot of fresh herbs on sale either in the market, or the supermarkets and hypermarkets in Provence - well anywhere in France. I'm always somewhat surprised at this, but the reason is that the French grow them at home, or go out into the countryside and pick them. I know that whenever we have rented a house in France there will always be at least some rosemary, or thyme in the garden, as well as others easily gathered nearby. It's most definitely part of the gorgeous smell of the garrigues of Provence - the wild heathlands inland and on the cliffs.

So how did we come to herbes de Provence in little packets? Many blame it all on Julia Child and her recipe for Poulet sauté aux herbes de Provence - a classic recipe, a version thereof that you will find in just about every French cookbook. This one here is Julia Child's recipe made by the writer of the One Perfect Bite website. However, I have my doubts about this theory because when I look at her original recipe, she just lists her herbs - so one assumes fresh and in the introduction says:

"Basil, thyme or savoury, a pinch of fennel and a bit of garlic give this sauté a Provençal flavour that is even more pronounced if your herbs are fresh" Julia Child.

Well the book was a massive hit in America, in the 1960s and maybe the Americans went for dried.

By the 1970s, however, the food companies became aware of the popularity of Provençal food and the French company Durcros devised a mix of dried herbs that they called Herbes de Provence. Thanks to Julia Child, and Elizabeth David and also Robert Carrier the food of Provence was a huge hit. It was also a time when ordinary people with very little money from the British Isles could travel to Provence and come back enraptured. So a fast and easy hit of Provençal flavour in a bottle was a commercial hit. I mentioned McCormick's earlier on - well they now own Ducros. Which is how a jar of McCormick's Herbes de Provence is sort of the real deal.

I just looked up the Coles and Woolworths websites for this particular product - I was just looking for a picture - and found to my surprise that neither of them sell herbes de Provence - they just sell Mixed dried herbs. Which probably is much the same. Interesting though - and Nigel Slater did say that herbes de Provence seem to have gone out of favour. And since I have mentioned him - a quick aside to show this dish - Baked chicken with herbes de Provence which was featured in the last Guardian newsletter, and which started me off on all of this. Chicken again because:

"There is an affinity between this scented herb mixture and chicken, particularly when olive oil and garlic is involved." Nigel Slater

Yes, there is, and all those daubes and tomatoes and olives too.

But back to commerce. I was somewhat horrified to read this in Wikipedia.

"The commercial name herbes de Provence has no Protected Geographical Status or other legal definition. Indeed, only 10% of herbes de Provence sold in France are produced in France; 95% come from Central and Eastern European countries (notably Poland and Albania), the Maghreb, or China. Herbes de Provence are often sold in larger bags than other herbs, and the price in Provence is considerably lower than for other herbs." Wikipedia

Having read in Thursday's Age of an Albanian mafia importing, growing and selling drugs here in Australia, my worst impressions of that country have now been reinforced. Probably most unfairly.

Herbes de Provence are certainly sold in big bags in those markets however. You can also often find them in expensive gourmet food shops packaged in superior looking jars. I wonder if they come from Albania too. I currently have a large jar which I only use occasionally, and who's contents were originally in one of those pretty bags. I use it mostly when I just don't have any fresh herbs to hand and am making tomato sauce or something similar, and it serves the purpose very well. Even though it is now old and probably of very low quality. Well that's what Richard Only sort of says so it's alright!

"Commercial mixtures of dried Provençal herbs usually contain too many herbs, including rosemary, lavender and sage, and usually smell musty. If you are able to collect your own herbs and dry them, a good mixture is composed of thyme, oregano, savoury and marjoram, in descending proportions. ... a wonderful seasoning for stuffings, marinades, sausage meat and pâtés, grilled meats and poultry, or to replace a bouquet garni if you are in a hurry or have no fresh herbs to hand." Richard Olney/Provence the Beautiful Cookbook

The commercial mixes also vary of course:

The herbs at the core of modern commercial versions are usually thyme, basil, savory, rosemary, tarragon or fennel, and marjoram." Recette Magazine

When I looked at the McCormick's product it said that theirs was a mix of rosemary, marjoram, thyme, sage, aniseed, savory and lavender. So obviously almost anything goes.

You will find many recipes online for a home-made blend, or you could just make up your own and call it Herbes d'Eltham or wherever you live.

I'll leave you with Robert Carrier's version because in his youth he spent quite some time there learning how to cook and absorbing the Provençal way. And even he says:

"this aromatic mix is also outstandingly good when used fresh."

"15g each of garden thyme; wild thyme; summer savory; lavender; rosemary; crumbled bay leaves; ground cloves; dried orange peel, ground nutmeg.

Dry the fresh herbs carefully in the lowest of ovens. Add the dried herbs and spices and pound them all to a fine powder in a mortar. Pass the powder through a fine sieve. Keep in a tightly closed jar."

I'm not sure about the 'fine powder' and passing it through a sieve. All the versions I have ever seen are more or less intact dried herbs mixed together. And most other recipes seemed to have different quantities of each of the herbs they used. Depending on their bias I suppose. Or you can just try Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's advice at the top of the page. A waste not want not approach.


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