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Easy to grow Herbes de Provence

Basil, oregano, rosemary, sage, savory, and thyme are essential ingredients that are easy to grow.

Basil, oregano, rosemary, sage, savory, and thyme are essential ingredients that are easy to grow.

Herbes de Provence, or Provençal herbs, is a traditional blend of aromatic herbs that flourish in hills of southern France during the hot summer months. Used by the handful when fresh, Herbes de Provence is also good using dried herbs. It is easy to grow and blend your own.

Basil, oregano, rosemary, sage, summer savory, and thyme are the herbs most typically used.  Bay leaf, fennel, chervil, tarragon, mint, and marjoram are sometimes added. Orange zest is sometimes included as is lavender, though the lavender is less traditional and was added more for the benefit of tourists who saw lavender fields as almost emblematic of the Provençe region. Traditional or not, the addition of lavender to the blend is a good one.

Herbes de Provence is an excellent addition to any dish from the Mediterranean region and is especially good mixed with olive oil to coat chicken, fish, tomatoes or chunks of potato for roasting, adding to a pizza sauce or sprinkled over game or kebabs before roasting. It’s also used for seasoning salads, sauces and cheeses, as well as soups and stews. Try rubbing the blend on whole turkey or the breast before roasting. Rub beef, lamb or veal with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, then press the herb blend into the meat. Sear the meat in a very hot skillet on both sides, then remove and finish roasting in a 180°C oven until cooked to your preference. When grilling add a pinch or two of Herbes de Provence to the coals when they are hot.

Herbes de Provence is often sold in traditional terracotta jars which make both a charming gift and an effective storage container.

GROWING HERBES DE PROVENCE

All of the herbs in this blend thrive in Provence’s Mediterranean climate, but they can be easily grown in less temperate regions.

SOIL CONDITIONS

Because nearly all the herbs are prone to root rot (Phytophthora species), they prefer rocky, sandy, or gravelly soil for good drainage. Like most Mediterranean herbs, they tolerate drought well. For sage, lavender, and oregano, a sandy soil actually enhances the amount of volatile oils in the foliage, making the herbs’ flavours more pungent. Basil is the only plant in the mixture that prefers ample moisture and a fertile soil.

Most gardeners prefer to buy seedlings of the perennial and shrubby forms of these plants at their local nurseries. Buy the smallest plants available, because their roots are less likely to be mangled by the container. It’s safer to plant after the danger of frost has passed and soil has warmed.  In humid climates, judicious pruning of the foliage of woody-stemmed herbs to a more open form will increase air circulation and help plants prosper.

HARVESTING, DRYING, AND STORING

For all except lavender, harvest leafy sprigs throughout the summer, then dry and store them in a cool, dark place. After they dry, strip the leaves from the twigs and store the dried herbs in dark jars in a cool place.

Begin harvesting before noon on a sunny, dry day. Clip sprigs that are free of dew or water. Harvest lavender flowers and flower stems only, without leaves (strip any leaves that might hang on to the 30- to 45 cm flower stems). Dry lavender flowers and other herbs on screen trays or by hanging small bundles in a dark, dry place with good air circulation. If ventilation is a problem, run an oscillating fan at low speed nearby. Keep the location completely dark, because even fluorescent bulbs will fade lavender’s flowers. Store each herb separately. To use, combine leaves and flowers only in small batches.

THE HERBS DESCRIBED

ENGLISH LAVENDER ( Lavandula angustifolia, also sold as L. officinalis, L. angustifolius, and L. vera)

Recommended: ‘Alba’, ‘Hidcote’, ‘Jean Davis’ (pale pink flowers), and ‘Munstead’. ‘Nana Alba’ is a short white variety.

Sun: Full sun is best, but plants will tolerate 4 hours of indirect light.

Description: This small, mounding shrub reaches 60- to 90cm tall and wide. Its narrow, lance-shaped leaves are up to 8cm long, and range from a pale olive green to blue-green. The flower heads usually extend 7cm or more along the stems. The tiny corollas (true flowers) may be mauve, blue-violet, violet shading to light blue, pale purple, bluish mauve, modest purple or rich violet; some varieties are white or pale pink. English lavender has the sweetest smell and flavour of all lavenders. It’s also a proven insecticide for aphids and repels cockroaches.

BASIL (Ocimum basilicum)

Recommended varieties: ‘Lettuce Leaf’ has 10cm crinkled leaves with smooth edges. ‘Opal’ and ‘Purple Ruffles’ have rich burgundy or purple foliage. Basil flavours also include lemon, cinnamon, and anise.

Sun: Prefers full sun.

Description: Plants come in many sizes, up to 60cm tall and wide. Leaves range from light to dark green, as well as purple and mottled green-purple. Pale white flowers bloom on long stems. Protect seedlings from slugs, snails, and earwigs. Prune or harvest regularly to extend the foliage season and delay flowering.

For more about growing basil see http://tinyurl.com/y9vbfm3

OREGANO (Origanum vulgare hirtum)

Recommended varieties: This subspecies of common oregano is the only “true” oregano, according to Arthur O. Tucker of the University of Delaware’s Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources. This same plant is sometimes sold as (O. heracleoticum).

Sun: Full sun.

Description: Oregano grows to 60cm tall and wider, and spreads by underground stems. Its oval leaves are soft and slightly gray-green. Flower stalks, pale pink with purplish overtones, rise above the foliage.

For more about growing oregano see http://tinyurl.com/34lbmna

ROSEMARY (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Recommended varieties: ‘Arp’, ‘Blue Boy’, ‘Collingwood Ingram’, ‘Golden Rain’, ‘Ken Taylor’, ‘Majorca Pink’, ‘Prostratus’, and ‘Tuscan Blue’.

Sun: Full sun, but tolerates up to two-thirds of the day in shade.

Description: Short, stiff, needle-like foliage is usually dark green but sometimes a rich chartreuse. The most rigid, upright forms, which have the best flavour, reach 2m. Low, prostrate shrubs stay below 45- to 60cm tall, with gracefully arching, rambling limbs. Rosemary blossoms run the spectrum from pale speckled blue to royal cobalt. Some flowers are pure white; others are various shades of pink or blue. Very well adapted to pots, window boxes, tubs, and troughs. Can be pruned as topiary or into a Christmas tree shape. Relatively pest-free.

COMMON SAGE (Salvia officinalis)

Recommended varieties: ‘Aurea’ (’Golden Sage’) is a variegated form with pale lime green, chartreuse-yellow, and darker sage green markings. ‘Purpurascens’, also sold as ‘Purpurea’, has leaves of a deep, smoky purple. ‘Tricolor’ is a variegated mixture of sage green, creamy white, and purple. All of these taste more resinous and slightly more acrid than common sage.

Sun: Prefers full sun but tolerates a small amount of shade.

Description: Compact growth 45- to 60cm tall and slightly wider. The 15- to 30cm flower stalks with soft violet-blue flowers create a delightful pastel haze floating above the foliage. S. triloba has shorter, wider leaves with two noticeable small lobes at the base of the larger main leaf (hence the name triloba). A member of the mint family and a relative of lavender.

For more about growing sage see http://tinyurl.com/2uyqhg8

SUMMER SAVORY (Satureja hortensis)

Recommended varieties: For Herbes de Provence, summer savory is preferred over winter savory, S. montana, which has a slightly coarser flavour.

Sun: Full sun.

Description: The 30- to 45cm plants have gray-green foliage and pale lilac or lavender blossoms on long, lavender-tinted stems.

Remarkable for its long period of summer bloom.

COMMON THYME (Thymus vulgaris)

Recommended varieties: Besides common thyme, try wonderfully scented lemon thyme (T. citriodorus) and its delightfully variegated form, ‘Aureus’; caraway-scented thyme (T. herba-barona); and very flavourful wild thyme (T. drucei, also known as T. praecox arcticus and T. serpyllum).

Sun: Full sun.

Description: The well-behaved, verdant foliage is composed of tiny, delicate leaves on stems up to a foot high. Clouds of misty mauve flowers float several cm above the leaves.

Relatively pest and disease free. The stems will readily root into a thin layer of compost. Also well adapted to containers.

BLENDING YOUR OWN HERBES DE PROVENCE

There is no one set mixture, just as there is no one fixed recipe for B-B-Q sauce or Garam Masala. However Herbes de Provence traditionally contains the herbs described above: basil, bay leaf, marjoram, rosemary, summer savory and thyme, with thyme at the forefront. Today Lavender is often included in the mix, although a little goes a long way. Bay leaf is also sometimes included. Most cooks adjust the proportions according to their own tastes, but here is a sample recipe —

2 Tablespoons dried basil

1 Tablespoon dried marjoram

½ Tablespoon dried rosemary

1 Tablespoon dried summer savory

2 Tablespoon dried thyme

2 teaspoon lavender flowers

1 bay leaf