In my first book on herbs, RECIPES FROM A FRENCH HERB GARDEN, I list the twenty herbs from basil to verbena that often play a role – sometimes as stars that top the bill plus others as minor or supporting actors – in the kitchens of France.
All culinary herbs have an individual character: in those such as tarragon, that we value for their particularly delicious flavour, some for their texture and acidity as in sorrel, others have a fragile beauty and delicate taste as in chervil, and there are herbs appreciated as handsome plants that produce attractive and edible flowers like those of lavender and borage.
Traditional French cooks and chefs consider fresh or dried herbs as essential to their cooking. And particular alliances of these fragrant plants have become so well-known and widely used around the world that they retain their French names.
Three of the most popular are fines herbes, herbes de Provence, and bouquet garni.
Fines herbes is the term describing the finely chopped leaves of parsley, chervil, chives, and tarragon. Though Alan Davidson describes this combination as ‘a minimalist interpretation’ which benefits from additions. While each of these four herbs has its own qualities that can stand alone in a dish, when combined with the other three and scattered over a dish the mixture contributes an attractive freshness and flavour. Fines herbes give character to an omelette and a wide range of egg dishes such as oeufs en cocotte or a subtly seasoned savoury soufflé. This herbal blend which should be added to a dish straight after chopping is also a welcome addition to ingredients with a delicate flavour such as white fish and poultry, notably the breast meat of chicken.
Herbes de Provence is a highly-aromatic blend of dried herbs from the south of France, originally wild herbs from the garrigue – the low-growing shrubs and plants common to the limestone terrain of the Midi.
In almost every town and village in Provence and even further afield, you can find decorative cloth bags of herbes de Provence on sale. Each summer I take some back to Britain as presents. But for my own use I prefer the larger hessian sacks or jars since powerfully fragrant herbes de Provence is an invaluable ingredient in summer cooking – strewn over meat and fish on the barbecue, sprinkled over pizza just before baking and added to the dough for a flat bread or savoury tart.
Opinions vary on how many different herbs should be included in herbes de Provence. Some argue for five, others say seven and I’ve even come across the mixture containing a dozen. Everyone agrees, though, on the essential four: thyme, sage, rosemary and marjoram.
This morning I bought a jar of herbes de Provence that includes oregano, basil and lavender though when tasting the mixture it is the dried wild thyme of the region also known as serpolet, that predominates.
I have grown this herb in Devon and Oxford and a Scottish friend is even successful in growing serpolet in Auchtermuchty. In a chilly northern echo of its warm Provençal homeland, the herb prefers a dry sunny corner of the garden and I find it flourishes in a terracotta pot on a south-facing balcony or doorstep protected from lashing rain and harsh winds.
In this trio of herbal alliances, the bouquet garni dates from the 17th century and is the most widely recognised in cooking. This small bundle of sprigs of parsley, thyme, and chives with a bay leaf tucked into a short length of celery and often enclosed in a layer of the white part of a leek then tied securely with string is invaluable for flavouring stock, soups and sauces. It is discarded when the herbs have imparted their flavour to the medium in which it’s cooked. In French supermarkets, a bouquet garni is usually added to the vegetables such as onion, carrot and turnip sold packed together for making soup. For it’s fair to say that most soups are improved by close contact with an aromatic posy of culinary herbs.