The climate in Provence more resembles Mediterranean countries than the rest of France, and abundant herbs used in both French and Italian cuisines grow wild on the hillsides, their flavors intensifying during the hot summer days. Cooks were able to pick the fresh herbs and add them to their roasting meats and stewpots in ratios that suited each dish, and they dried herbs for winter use much as people dry herbs elsewhere. It was only with the advent of the tourist trade that the dried, mixed herbs were packaged and blended, to be taken home as a memento of one's trip to Provence. Perhaps this is the reason that so many different recipes for herbes de Provence remain, as different cooks envision different herbs as essential to the traditional cuisine of the region.
According to that company's web site, Chuck Williams (of William Sonoma) was the first to bring this herb mix to the States commercially, after his visit to Provence in the 1960s. Other spice companies followed the trend. Cooks in Provence still formulate their dishes the old-fashioned way, and to them, the herbes de Provence are just everyday herbs, so they may not use - or even have heard of - a generic Provence herbs blend.
Interestingly, lavender was not originally a part of herbes de Provence, but was added because, in the tourist's mind, it defined the Provence experience. Lavender is still not common in mixes formulated in France, and if it is included, it is in a much smaller quantity than in blends manufactured in America.
Herbs that are considered essential to herbes de Provence are:
The mix is then rounded out based on the cook's individual tastes. In addition to lavender flowers (which make the mix distinctive and gives it a lovely color), other herbs you might consider adding include:
To make your own dried herbes de Provence, place four tablespoons each of dried basil, savory and thyme into a bowl. Crumble in 4 bay leaves. Add the other herbs a teaspoon at a time, smelling the mixture between additions to make sure it remains pleasant and appetizing. Stop when you feel you have achieved a complex yet delicate aroma.
Now that you have the mix, what can you do with it? If you included tarragon, you can use it in place of poultry seasoning. Rosemary makes it an excellent addition to roasted meats and stews. Fennel makes it a natural sprinkled onto pizzas, and into Italian-style soups.
My absolute favorite way to use dried herbes de Provance is to mix a tablespoon with a tablespoon of olive oil, a few cloves of mixed garlic, a shallot or two and a pinch of sliced scallions. I take a whole chicken and shove half this mix up under the skin, and then roast the chicken. I then combine the rest of herb mixture with half a cup of honey and use this to glaze the chicken when it is almost done roasting.
If you plan to give the herbes de Provence mix as a gift, consider packing it into little muslin or burlap bags, or into terra cotta crocks. This will give you a look similar to the up-scale imported mixes.
* Lavender flowers are among the many herbs that should not be consumed by pregnant women.