France, the land of Escoffier, the first celebrity chef, is renowned for its cuisine. Visitors to the country expect the very best food whether they’re dining in the poshest Parisian restaurant or a tiny village auberge in Provence, and they’re not usually disappointed. French chefs pride themselves on their use of only the freshest produce and the finest ingredients, including their own delicate blends of herbs and seasonings.
Three of the most popular blends of herbs used in kitchens today originated in France, and their names have become part of our cookery vocabulary: bouquet garni, fine herbes and herbes de Provence.
Every chef will have his own favourite recipe for each of these blends but there is general agreement on the basic ingredients. Fresh herbs will always give the best and truest flavour and should be used where possible, although dried herbs, as long as they’re not kept for too long, are fine to use when necessary.
From the French meaning garnished bouquet, this is a small bunch of herbs tied together and used as flavouring for soups, stews or casseroles. A typical bouquet garni will include a bay leaf, a few parsley stalks and some sprigs of thyme, tied with string. Added to the dish before cooking, the remains are removed before eating, after the flavours have been absorbed.
Instead of string, a piece of green leek may be used to wrap the bundle, which may include rosemary or tarragon. Alternatively a tea infuser may be used to hold the herbs.
Used with egg and cheese dishes, salads or sauces, this is a delicate blend of flavours that may include chives, chervil, parsley and tarragon. Usually, because of their subtle taste, fine herbes are added at the later stages of cooking or sprinkled on after cooking.
Herbes de Provence
A more robust collection of Mediterranean flavours combine to create this blend. They may include basil, fennel, thyme, savory, bay or rosemary. Authentic recipes call for lavender flowers to be added as well.
Omelette aux fine herbes
- 4 eggs
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped chives
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped chervil
- 1 teaspoon finely chopped parsley
- freshly ground salt and pepper
- 1 oz butter
Break the eggs into a bowl, season and add the herbs. Mix lightly. Leave to stand for 10 -15 minutes to allow the flavours to penetrate. Melt the butter but don’t allow it to brown. Stir the egg mixture again before pouring into the pan. After 10 seconds stir lightly again. Repeat until the egg is just set. Fold in half and turn out onto a plate.
- 3 sprigs thyme
- 2 parsley stalks
- 1 bay leaf
- 5 rashers bacon, diced
- 1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
- 2 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
- 2 lbs casserole beef, cubed
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
- ½ pint red wine
- zest of an orange
- 2 pints beef stock
- handful pitted black olives
- freshly ground salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 150oC, gas mark 2. Make a bouquet garni by tying together the thyme, parsley and bay leaf. Heat an ovenproof casserole dish and fry the bacon until the fat begins to run. Add the onion and carrots and fry until starting to soften. Add the meat, turn up the heat and fry, stirring, until browned on all sides. Add the garlic and continue to fry for 1 minute.
Add the red wine, bouquet garni and the orange zest and let bubble until the liquid is reduced by half. Add the beef stock, cover and cook in the oven for about 2½ hours or until the meat is very tender. Add the olives, season and stir. Return to the oven and cook for another 30 minutes. Remove the bouquet garni before serving.