Classic French cuisine is both sophisticated and simple and herbs are an essential ingredient. Subtly flavoured herbs like tarragon, chervil, chives, and fennel are used with a light touch, while thyme is favoured for the robust flavour it imparts to casseroles, roasts and soup.
BOX: Traditional herb combinations
The French use herbs differently, making their own ‘bouquets’ of three or more herbs for a nuanced flavour.
Bouquet Garni is a ‘broth’ posy of sprigs of parsley, thyme, and bay tied together and added to soups, stews and casseroles but removed before serving. Rosemary is a more recent addition.
Fines herbesis a delicate blend of finely chopped tarragon, chervil, chives and parsley for velvety sauces, omlettes, and butters served with grilled meat or fish. Use one tablespoon each of fresh or dried herbs.
Herbes de Provenceis an aromatic dried herb seasoning for rubbing into meat, chicken or fish or combining with olive oil as a marinade. Mix 3 tablespoons each of dried marjoram, thyme and savory, one teaspoon each of dried basil, and rosemary and half a teaspoon each of dried sage and fennel seeds. Crush slightly and store in a sealed jar.
Five French cooking herbs:
French Tarragon(Artemisia dracunculusvarsativa) is the queen of French culinary herbs with distinctive anise-flavoured leaves. Long, slender stems form a dense 90cm wide and high shrub that goes dormant in winter.
- Needs in full sun
- Likes moist, not waterlogged soil.
- Aromatic foliage repels insects, enhances the growth and flavour of other crops, especially aubergines.
- Replace every four years.
Heat brings out the flavour so only a few leaves are needed to add character to creamy sauces and soups.
Used in Fines herbes,Sauce Béarnaise and Sauce verte (Green sauce) for salmon, and roast chicken with tarragon (Poulet á l’estragon). Add leaves to salads, especially tomato salads.
Dry or freeze leaves.
Cool season annual herb that looks and tastes like parsley but with a hint of aniseed. Bright green, fern-like leaves and grows 30cm to 60cm high.
- Needs light shade in summer, full sun in winter,
- grows well in window boxes, containers.
- Sow every 5 weeks for a regular supply
- Water frequently in hot weather.
- Harvest the leaves before the plant starts flowering.
Chervil’s flavour is lost when heated. Add at the end of cooking or as a garnish for salads, vegetables, soups (consommé with vegetables), sauces (Sauce messine), omlettes, poultry and fish.
Store leaves in the refrigerator in a sealed plastic bag. Make herb butter or infused vinegar.
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
Chives are grassy little perennials with mild onion-flavoured leaves and pink or blue powder puffs of edible flowers.
- Plant in full sun or semi shade
- ideal for containers, but needs regular watering.
- Interplant with roses, grapes, carrots, and tomatoes to keep pests away.
To harvest, cut the stems at soil level. They re-sprout quickly.
Snip chives into dishes at the end of cooking or as a garnish just before serving. Use with cream cheese, in egg dishes, cheese soufflé, salads, soup, in herb butters for grilled meat or fish and with sour cream for baked potatoes.
French thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
A low growing bushy perennial herb with dark green aromatic leaves and mauve flowers in summer. Use as an edging, alongside pathways or in containers.
- Plant in full sun, tolerates most kinds of soil.
- Stimulates the growth of neighbouring plants and its aromatic leaves repel aphids.
- Don’t over water.
Add at the beginning of cooking.
Strip the leaves from the stalks and chop finely or add whole sprigs to cooking, removing before serving.
Classic dishes: Boeuf à la bourguignonne, Provencal beef and wine stew, Coq au vin, and Poulet sauté aux olives de Provence (sautéed chicken with olives and tomatoes).
Leaves dry well.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgaris)
Fennel is a tall, graceful perennial herb with fine, feathery leaves and yellow flowers. The leaves, stems and bulb have a light aniseed taste and aroma.
- Grows in full or morning sun.
- Don’t grow next to coriander, wormwood, bush beans, cucumber, tomatoes or caraway.
- Use in flowering borders.
- Water regularly during hot weather.
- Add fennel leaves to the compost.
Use leaves or sliced fennel bulbs in salads, roast vegetables, in stuffing for baked fish or poultry, vinaigrette sauces, fish mayonnaise, and flavouring bouillon for poaching fish.
Grill fish on dried fennel stalks (Provencal grilllade au fenouil). The same can be done with pork.
Dry seed for flavouring bread, cakes and biscuits.
Snip: General growing tips
- All herbs like soil that drains well;
- Before planting, enrich the soil with compost.
- Monthly feeding with a liquid fertiliser improves leaf production.
- Regular picking encourages new growth and bushier plants.