The herbs de Provence
'Herbes de Provence', the perfume of our sun-baked hills...
When Gilbert Bécaud sang the praises of Provence's food markets, evoking the scents of fennel and iodine, the Provence of 1957 had no idea it was about to give birth to one of its most enigmatic treasures, whose reputation has largely exceeded the region's frontiers. 'Herbes de Provence' – the treasure in question – first appeared in the Sixties, when some marketing geniuses came up with the brilliant idea of selling a blend of herbs, soberly entitled... 'Herbes de Provence'! Originally, the idea was to pick the herbs - thyme, rosemary and a pinch of savory mixed with oregano - by hand in the dry garrigue, the foothills of the Garlaban hills and valleys of Sainte Victoire mountain.
Packed with sunshine and redolent with a holiday perfume, this aromatic herb mixture met with resounding and unexpected success, bringing exotic, summer flavours to many local dishes.
A plant that likes a rough time!
The local Thymus vulgaris flourishes on Provence's most arid, rocky soils: deprived of water due to frequent droughts, thyme and its peers produce large quantities of oil to protect themselves from dehydration. After studying the plants, around 50 local farmers keen to hoist these humble herbs to a more noble status, decided to produce 'Herbes de Provence' in respect of the strict criteria of the new 'Label Rouge' (Red Label) quality label. Like a Justice of the Peace, the Trets cooperative in the Bouches-du-Rhône area now reigns over these do-gooders.
In order to obtain the prestigious label, Provence's farmers have to parch their fields and produce 'Herbes de Provence' with an essential oil content double that of run-of-the-mill herbs. Before being sold, the leaves must be stemmed, clean and free of earth and gravel. The ultimate stamp of quality of these certified herbs: the leaves are handled manually and minimally, to avoid dissipating their flavour before they are sprinkled in the crockpot...
With the imminent arrival of summer, the herbs that go to make the famous blend are regaining they fine bottle green, bronze green and silver green colours and offer up a pretty palette when the sun blazes down on the hills in August. For cooks and foodies alike, Red Label 'Herbes de Provence' have become a benchmark of quality and the assurance of a consistent purchase every time: 27% savory, rosemary and oregano and 19% thyme. No more, no less.
Gathering them requires a bit of care: kit yourself out with a wicker basket and secateurs cleaned thoroughly before your walk. Only pick as much as you need and never uproot the plants. Also, always make sure the young shoots remain so the plant can continue to grow. When you get home, spread your herbs out on a clean worktop and remove any foreign stalks, leaves and stones. Leave them to dry for around a fortnight before storing them in tins or glass jars.
Used to make a roast lamb crust, or spice up roast potatoes or ratatouille, the 'Herbes de Provence' blend is simply glorious and, especially, the perfect partner to tomato-based dishes. Aficionados of land and sea food pairings love the herbs sprinkled on grilled fish: sea bass, sea bream or red mullet with tomato and oregano offer succulent proof of the pudding. And as they are so concentrated, you only need a few pinches. Just add a drizzle of olive oil and a dash of Camargue Fleur de Sel to transform the most mundane dish into a work of art.
The next time you go walking in the Massif des Alpilles, or in the hills overlooking La Ciotat, you'll see these bent and twisted little plants with a new eye... Like a Bonsai patiently grown in stones, these sprigs of thyme and rosemary are one of the region's most precious treasures, embodying our gastronomic heritage…
"He says he's going to cultivate the authentic! Authentic everywhere! What is it?
- It must be a plant that grow in books..."
Marcel Pagnol, "The Water of the Hills"
Things to do
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