Terri on Herbes de Province

Terri leads us through complicated flavors!

What’s the first rule of herbes de Provence?

–There’s no such thing as a traditional blend of herbes de Provence.

What’s the second rule of herbes de Provence?

–There’s no such thing as a traditional blend of herbes de Provence.

Herbes de Provence, as a marketed thing, did not exist until the 1970s, and we can thank Julia Child for turning it into a collective noun. Prior to her recipe instruction to add said noun to a chicken sauté, les grand-mères Provençales (Provencal grandmothers, yo) would simply add…herbs. Grown locally. In the proportions they found most pleasing for their palates. The French spice company Ducros (now a part of a giant spice company that shall remain nameless) packaged a medley of herbs for export et voila! Nearly fifty years have passed and we’re still buying it.

Located in the southeastern corner of France, bordering Italy, the southern Alps, and the Mediterranean Sea, Provence is known for food that is not fussy. Provencal cuisine coaxes tons of flavor out of simple ingredients, and the cooks there know how to apply local herbs to their best advantage. Want to sass up your asparagus? Roast it with olive oil and some herbes de Provence and suddenly, your dish is full of Mediterranean vigor. In no particular order, herbes de Provence may consist of thyme, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, basil, chervil, tarragon, lovage, savory, sage, bay leaf and fennel. It may include dried orange rind. Blends packaged for US consumption usually include lavender, but those packaged for consumption elsewhere do not. It seems Americans so closely associate Provence with their lavender fields that we’re not happy without a spike of it in the blend. At least, that’s the official line; I suspect it’s got more to do with offloading agricultural overstock, but that’s my inner cynic speaking. At least the end results are yummy.

Why do we love spice blends? Why do tremendous amounts of spice cabinets contain things like herbes de Provence or Italian seasoning or Chinese five-spice powder? That’s easy. Because…they do a lot of the work for the home cook, and provide a modicum of insight into cultural cuisine for a relatively small cost. We may not know what to do with a whole star anise, but we can experience it in five-spice powder. We may not have a bottle of chervil, lovage, and savory sitting in the spice rack (or growing in the local fields), but we can buy some herbes de Provence and partake in the aromatic flavors that are ubiquitous to the sunny Mediterranean way of life. You may not be in France but with some herbes and the right olive oil, you can imagine what it’s like there thanks to your potatoes.

Because the herb medley is so fluid, it’s impossible to nail down the overall health benefits. If nothing else, many of the herbs listed above—which may or may not be in a blend—have antioxidant properties, so that’s something you can count on. And who isn’t happier, and consequently less stressed out, when they eat food that’s been made delicious by use of a delicious spice blend? Boom, there you have it. Herbes de Provence relieve anxiety. You heard it here first, world. You’re welcome.

The ingredients in herbes de Provence are no secret, so if you have the time and inclination, feel free to mix herbs together in proportions you find most pleasing. It’s what Julia Child did. But if you don’t think you need to reinvent the spice wheel in order to make your dinner sing, get yourself a bottle of les herbes and transport yourself to the rolling hills of southeastern France

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