July 29, 2013

Grow your own Herbes de Provençe

Herb wreath, herbes de provence
Making your own Herbes de Provençe is easy, but like anything, it does require some up-front knowledge about
selecting the best herbs, as well as knowing the right time to dry them, but the truth is, there is no one, single
recipe which is 'classic' or even 'traditional'.
I took this week off as vacation, which means that I do some annual cleaning in the greenhouse, repotting South African bulbs and cyclamen, and cleaning out my kitchen cabinets - not very romantic. It also means that I usually order new spices and herbs, getting ready for autumn baking, pickle and canning season and the holidays when I usually realize too late that I am out of whole Nutmeg.As my order from Penzey's Spices arrived, it came along with a free bottle of  'Herbes de Provençe' - a mixture of herbs common in the south of France where is is reportedly used for everything from roasted poultry to custards. But curious me wanted to know more about this herb mixture, and what I found out might surprise you ( it surely surprised me). 

Herbes de Provence, drying herbs from the garden
Basic Herbes de Provence consists of just a few herbs - tarragon, thyme, rosemary and oregano, in a 25% ratio.
We should all be familiar with 'Herbes de Provençe', the herbal mix that many American know and have, but few know how to use ( try grilled meats, egg dishes and chicken breast). We know the mixture of dried herbes as it often comes in fancy containers, sometimes with a cork lid, or an olive wood scoop, and generally found at posh gourmet stores in fancy crocks with hand-written lables. In many ways, Herbes de Provençe is over-rated, with many chefs snubbing their noses at the mixture which really, can be created with a bit of every herb found in ones pantry already, but I've found that with just a little research, the story behind Herbes de Provençe is more like that of curry spice mixes - the 'idea' existed for a long time before a commercial mix ever became available, and also like many curry mixes today, the exact recipe can be a different brand by brand, or grandmother by grandmother, as the original Herb mixture was simple gathered from ones garden or countryside, and varied from valley to mountaintop. These herb mixtures can be a thumbprint of each creator, each home chef, or each grandmother. 

I think it's time to deep dive into the "Frenchiest" mixture I can create myself, from my garden, and maybe you can create one too. Click below my journey into Provençe for more:

Freshly picked Herbes de Provence
This past Saturday, I turned all 'French' for a day, picking so many herbs that my hands smelled
for two days! Nothing that a little Pastis couldn't cure!

Arguably, one of the greatest benefits with being both a gardener and and a cook, is that each experience is enhanced considerably if you grew the produce, and harvested it yourself, but to be honest, there exists this fact: at some point in our lives we learn that 'homemade' isn't always better, more often than not, it's the experience that is better. Drying ones own herbs can fall into either category, as fresh herbs are sometimes actually better tasting if freeze dried or commercially dried, but when it comes to fresh herbs, nothing can beat home-grown freshness, and more so, fresh picked herbs which are either 'wild' or oil-rich like many of the Mediterranean woody herbs like Rosemary and Thyme really can't compare to stale, store bought ones. As these are a major component in the herb mixture known as 'Herbes de Provençe'. I think it's time to do one of my own comparisons.

Ceramic Locust from France
A tradition Provençial wall locust, a ceramic locust that I bought in Nice, filled with fresh picked herbs on our porch near the kitchen. I have a half dozen of the Locust pots, hanging near the rear door in various sizes, I like
how wierd they are, at least to an American, but as our locust's hatch this year, they suddenly make sense.

First, 'Herbes de Provençe' is rather new on the scene, invented in the 1970's as a commercial mixture to sell to tourists, and to export. It' origin has some basis, as it was inspired by the wild herbs found growing in Provençe, the south western coast of France where Provençial grandmothers picked branches of Rosemary, Thyme and Savory for use in the kitchen, the truth is that French grand mere would never recognize that little jar of 'Herbes de Provence' sitting in your spice cabinet.

It also seems that no two people can agree specifically on what herbs should be included in a Herbes- de Provençe mixture. So off I went on a journey to find out more about this mix, and then, on a journey in my own garden, so that I could make some 'proper' Herbes de Provençe' to share with friends, and to keep in my cupboard. 

Sure, one can find jars of Herbes de Provençe in France today, but there, the standard is a commercial brand marketed under the name Ducros, and Label Rouge ( now owned by spice giant McCormick).

Fancier brands in the US have ingredient that can vary wildly, but there seems to be one fact most connoisseurs of the herb mix agree upon, and that it, that it must never contain lavender, especially the blossoms. Lavender was added in the 1980's to make mixes feel 'French' in both scent and feel', ( OK< I like the Lavender in some mixes, I admit), but knowing that it was added so that it would appeal to tourists does make me want to try a more 'authentic mix, even though I use the term 'authentic', loosely.

Today I decided to go out into the garden, and pick herbs specifically for drying, so that I can make my own Herbes de Provence mixture. Taking in all that I have learned in my research, I feel pretty confidant that I can make a good mixture, as I have many of the oil-rich herb species required.

The trick here is this: Use as many of the high summer-growing herbs, those Mediterranean species that would be found in gardens, or in the wilds of Southern France.  If one thing is essential, it is this - use the right varieties of these herbs, for an inferior Thyme, such as Lemon Thyme ( Thymus serpyphyllum, will dry terribly and ruin a mix). Here are my notes on each type of herb required for a decent Herbes de Provence mixture. Feel free to switch around proportions, but I will include the rough proportions used in France per the Label Rouge web site.

 I am separating the herbs into groups, plants that have similar amounts of volatile oils , or drying times.

Here are some basic suggestions for recipes:

1. The Label Rouge mixture calls for:
Rosemary, Oregano, Savory, Marjoram, Sage, Lovage. Bay, Parsley, Basil, Tarragon and Fennel.

2. An old French classic cook book the Larrousse de la Cuisine, has a much simpler mix:
Wild Thyme, Rosemary, Bay Leaf and Savory ( Summer Savory).

3. Patricia Wells, in her 'Patricia Wells at Home in Provence' cook book (Scribner, 1996), prefers fresh, wild collected herbs, snipped fresh fennel fronds rather than seed, as well as snipped dill, but lists her 'classic' dried mixture as having "Dried Fennel (seed), rosemary, sage, savory, and wild of domestic thyme."

For what's it's worth, she goes on to clarify the difference between Herbes de Provençe and Fines Herbes. "Fines Herbes are comprised of fresh chervil, tarragon, chives and parsley". Chefs worth their sea salt also know that Fines Herbes are best when assembeled and used as fresh herbs, and not dried.

Note: Not one of these contains lavender.

Home grown herbs, drying herbs
Herbs dry on the back porch. NOte the hand painted locusts on the olive urn.

Another chapter in Larrousse de la Cuisine lists "Fennel, Rosemary, Chervil, Oregano, Summer Savory, Tarragon, Mint, Marjoram Orange zest and Lemon Zest, and that Lavender leaves can be added 'as a benifit for tourists". How funny.
I have seen mixtures with

The truth is much more simple, and logical- Herbe's de Provençe simple means "handfuls of summer herbs found in Southern France, and the recipes vary a widely from family to family, as recipes should, Let me know what your favorite mixture has in it.

Drying herbs
Thyme and other aromatic herbs drying on the back porch.

Notes on specific herbs for Herbes de Provençe

Fennel, Tarragon,Lovage and Chervil

These provide that essential licorice flavor found in the mix, and although some mixes include all, or none of the licorice scented herbs, the most common ones used are tarragon and fennel. Fennel seed may provide the strongest flavor, and in France, wild fennel seed is preferred, but unless you live somewhere where this grows as an escapee ( such as in California), you will have to harvest your own, or buy it. Tarragon will dry nicely, but forget about drying Chervil, it is far too tender, and like cilantro, will lose its flavor.

Fresh oregano
Pick fresh herbs in just as the dew dries in the morning, as the leaves much never be wet or damp. Tie
into tiny bundles, and air dry in a shady, dry and breezy spot. Pick more mature stems,
( if they don't wilt, they are mature), as these will have the highest essential oil content.

If you are making a fresh mix, then you have many more options to achieve the same flavor profile.  When using fresh herbs, you may choose chopped Lovage leaves, but they can be horsey, due to their size and stems.  The finest fresh option is Chervil, which offers a delcate flavor profile almost unmatched as it is also somewhat floral. I would choose that as the finest option for that authentic mix, Remember, never dry chervil, fennel fronds or lovage, for all you will have is hay-scented herbs with only a hint of licorice.

Fresh Oregano

Oregano, Marjoram, Sage

Finding the proper oregano may be your greatest challenge, as most commercial garden varieties found in the US are not the true culinary oregano we find at pizza parlors or even at the market. Look first for a type that will return year after year, and as Oregano in the world of Provençe most likely means 'wild oregano', an Oraganum species found growing throughout the mediterranean. At nurseries, look  for Greek Oregano, or Oreganum vulgare. What you want here is a rich, strong-flavored oregano that will hold its flavor once dried, and, an oregano with flavor. Lemon oregano, orange oregano and any of the fancy types won't do. In drying oregano, one must wait until late in the growing season, when the plant is blooming, as the floral buds and blossom ends contain the richest amount of volatile oils. Leaves have the least. Look for varieties that have woodier stems, and not green stems that will wilt when picked. A proper oregano branch should be woody, stiff and intensely fragrant. A bunch of dried oregano in bloom, should only be rubbed gently between ones hands, to release the fragrant leaflets near the blossoms.

Sage can vary, as of course, it is a Salvia. I find that culinary sage can vary from plant to plant, so when buying plant or growing your own from seed, test them all, to find your favorite. Some new hybrids are excruciatingly horrible in scent ( especially the thin-leaved dwarf forms). Find a good sage, and stick with it. I know it is strong, and hard to find a good use for ( but I do reccommend  the recipe for Frittata in the Al Forno cookbook  Cucina Simpatica by food geniuses Johanne Killeen and George Germon - my favorite cookbook in the world, in which every page is stuck together and the cover has been missing for years! It will make you adore sage and eggs. Cucina Simpatica gave me a gift, and that gift was a love for sage beyond Bell's Seasoning.).

summer herbs
Herbes de Provençe hang on a breezy, airy porch near our kitchen entrance where the sun never shines.

Savory, Basil, and Parsley

When the French write about Savory here, they are referring to the one gardeners know as Summer Savory. In seed catalogs and at some nurseries you may find something called winter savory, it is woody and has a fuzzier leaf. Summer Savory has a smooth leaf, and if you are not growing this herb already, I urge you to. I never eat Zucchini without it!. Both are eventually woody shrublets, but winter savory is so much more hairier and greyer, and it has a  skunky and bitter taste which makes it less palatable. Summer savory must be grown from seed, or from plants if you are lucky to find it. Harvest before it blooms, or in late summer when the new growth has begun to harden off. Again, volatile oils is the goal, and these mature as summers end.

Culinary Thyme, Thymus vulgaris
Choosing the perfect Thyme means doing a little more research - the wrong thyme can ruin everything.

Thyme, Rosemary, Bay

Thyme seems to be a lose term at most garden centers, so proceed carefully. The thyme species you want is Thymus vulgaris, not Thymus serpyphyllum. You can tell the difference sometimes from the labels ( variegated Thyme, Golden Thyme or Lemon Thyme, are all T serpyphyllum - it has a wider leaf. Thymus vulgaris is more woody, especially near the end of summer, as as a culinary thyme, it has leaves which are often rolled, or smaller. If in doubt, the scent will give it away, as T, vulgaris cultivars that are best for cooking have crispier leaves, full of essential oils. Never use the Wooly Thymes, T. pseudolanuginosus.

Fresh Rosemary ready for drying
Freshly picked Rosemary from containers on the gravel bed

Rosemary varieties are more versatile, as most are so similar, with varying degrees of oilyness. I use a prostrate from, with semi-mature stems that are half green, half woody near the end of summer - they are often so sticky with oils when I pick them, that I need to clean my snips. Rosemary can be harvested anytime of the year, but I find that growth which is almost mature has the finest flavor when dried, and is less likely to turn into sharp 'pine needles'.

Fresh Bay Laurel

Bay laurel is easy, as long as you have the true Bay laurel. Laurus nobilis. Many plants have common names with the term 'laurel' but some are poisonous, or at the very least, inedible. I harvest my bay laurel leaves just as the mature in August or September, as young harvested while too young will dry with a brown color. No need to string them up,  I simply place them in egg cups on a breezy porch out of the sun, and they will dry in a few weeks.

Drying Basil
I grow many types of Basil, but this Genovese basil I feel is not choice as some of the smaller leaved forms
for drying. Still, I rarely dry basil, opting to either only use it fresh, or eliminate it from the mix.

Basil, parsley

As dried herbs, these are basically filler, I believe. For we all should know by now that dried basic is horrid, and dried parsley is barely fit enough for a caged rabbit. Use these only if you are making a fresh mixture, otherwise, leave them out.

Please share any of your favorite recipes for Herbes de Provençe. Do you like lavender in yours? DO you use other herbs in your mixes? Do you microwave your herbs, or dry them in the oven?


  1. Thanks for spending some time to demystify herbes de provence! It's one of those silly marketing things isn't it? I wish people could feel more romantic about them (as I do) than intimidated. I spent a "Junior" year in Aix-en-P and have been cooking with them ever since. They're just a mix of herbs that grow wild in the countryside. When I left, a girlfriend brought me a big fistful of thyme that she'd pulled roots and all from her "backyard". I wrapped it lightly in tissue paper and brought it back to the States with me, letting it dry on the stalk, and cooked with it for...years?

    I put a pinch of herbes de provence in everything - soups, chili, ragus, marinades, dry rubs, salad dressing it's a shortcut that saves you having to take five different jars out of the cupboard. And I recently bought a giant version from Surfa's here in L.A. which has an inordinate amount of lavender flower in it. I was dubious....but the lavender does not adversely affect the flavors in any way as long as you're letting everything cook down well. (In salad dressings, it depends on your tastes.) It's true, the herbes de Provence I bought in France back in the days never had lavender in the ingredients list though it did have "serpolet" (in addition to "thym") which I'm guessing was the thymus serpyphyllum you discourage. Provencal grannies may know something about drying that we still don't but it can't have been so hard - they lived quite rustic lives. Anyway, not to contradict you, but to encourage anybody who wants to experiment.

    Thanks again for this.....no wonder you are among the top garden bloggers....love how varied and free ranging your posts are!

  2. Gardening in humid Virginia, I think I need to break down and buy a dehydrator, but I am loathe to purchase one more kitchen appliance.
    But the takeaway from this post is an obsession with locust pots--I think I may have to move Nice up on my list just to get one!

  3. Thanks Mlle Paradis, that means a lot coming from you! How jealous I am that you lived in Aix-en-P, I never made it that far. Yeah, I feel the same way about lavender - I love it in many things, but not in everything. My fav? When it's used with Creme, or, anything with lamb, right? I think I may try some of this in my olive oil cake the next time I make it. I usually use rosemary, but I never thought of using a mixture, or even lavender.

  4. Great article, Matt, especially for the tips on selecting the right species of plants, as that clearly makes all the difference. Thank you very much.

  5. Thank you for sharing all the research you did. I agree with you that the flavor of various cultivars can make quite a difference. Some oregano don't have much taste. There is also a harvesting time problem. Chervil has now died down for the season and will only reappear next spring.
    Your mention of Bay Laurel brought back memories. Last January we were in Victoria B.C. and someone had cut down, chopped up and put to the kerb a very large bay laurel. You could smell the marvelous scent it exuded streets away.

  6. Hi Alain, I know exactly what you mean about Bay Laurel. I trimmed my trained standard forms ( they are nearly 9 feet tall) which stand outside of my greenhouse all summer, and I still haven't found time to sweep up the clippings. THey are scenting the long bluestone walk that leads to the greenhouse now, and I really don't feel like sweeping them up yet!

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