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Herbes de Provence are loosely defined as an herb mix which includes both French and Italian herbs, in a blend of sweet and savory. The end result is complex in flavor, and can be used on a variety of foods. Poultry pairs especially well with Herbes de Provence, but they can also be added to other meats as well as soups and sauces. Many stores sell Herbes de Provence, usually in dried form. It is also possible to blend your own, or to grow the herbs in a small herb garden so that they can be used fresh.
The Provencal region of France is well known for fresh Mediterranean style cooking. The warm weather of the summer is excellent for herbs, and by some traditions, a true Herbes de Provence blend includes only herbs which are grown in Provence. Other cooks range farther afield for their blends, and most cooks develop their own unique herb combinations. Generally, small leaves are left whole or lightly crushed in Herbes de Provence, while larger leaves and flowers are broken up.
Some of the most common inclusions in Herbes de Provence are basil, bay leaf, lavender, marjoram, orange peel, rosemary, and thyme. Thyme is often heavily used in the blend, since it flourishes in warm summer weather and many Provencal cooks use it abundantly. The idea of a generic blend of herbs was not actually developed until the 1970s, when herb and spice companies want to capitalize on the market for French herbs. In Provence itself, a request for “Herbes de Provence” may be met with a blank stare.
When used fresh, Herbes de Provence can lend a distinctive freshness to dishes. Fresh herbs are somewhat more complex and aromatic than their dried counterparts, and they are usually sprinkled onto a dish at the last minute, so that they retain flavor. Dried herbs are certainly acceptable when fresh herbs are not available, although they should be stored in a cool dry place until they are needed. After six months to a year, the herbs may also lose potency.
Many people like to grow distinct Herbes de Provence blends in their gardens. In addition to providing a ready supply of fresh cooking herbs, an herb garden is also very aromatic, making the outdoors a pleasant place to be. Herb gardens also do not require a great deal of space, and a small simple selection of herbs can even be grown indoors in a large planter in a sunny spot.
Actually, the blend almost always includes summer or winter savory, which have a quite distinctive flavour that gives a characteristic tang to the whole mixture. I've bought many different versions and never had bay in it (though I can't see any reason why you shouldn't put it in your own version.