One of the things the garden forcefully teaches is the vivd difference in flavor between things we grow ourselves and even those things we pay the full yuppie markup for at the local health/organic emporium. For years I bought the herbes de Provence blend at the local Health Mart™ and used it, often liberally, in many dishes. The blend of thyme, rosemary, oregano (and/or marjoram) and lavender (and sometimes fennel, and more) is pretty much Mediterranean in a jar when it comes to giving your meats and sauces that certain fragrant, resinous quality that’s instantly recognizable. Add a few fat pinches to a pan of tomato purée, and it’s pizza sauce. Like that.
But as with so many other things, the real satisfaction of understanding an ingredient only comes with chasing it as far up the supply chain as it is possible to go, which in this case means growing and drying it yourself. Since it is the season for preservation, I took it upon myself to pick a bunch of all four plants a while back so I could duplicate this most-favorite of the dried herb mixtures. I can honestly say that there’s no comparison between this and the store-bought; it’s so much more vivid and complex, imparting vastly more information to a dish than the drab, stale version grown far away. This isn’t surprising, but if you need a perfect illustration of the difference between homemade and outsourced, this is as good a place to start as any.
The beauty of this blend is that all of the herbs involved share that resinous quality so there’s significant and seamless overlap between them when combined. They amplify each other into a powerful signifier of place, even if they’re grown many thousands of miles away from that place.
It’s not complicated; all I did was pick, sort, and wash them, and then leave them out to dry. I did give the drying a boost by using my alternative to the dehydrator that I do not own: a cookie sheet over the water bath while it was busy cooking that lamb “loin” from the previous post. If the bath is around 130˚, it’s a safe bet that the surface of the sheet is near 110˚, which is dehydrator temp. A BTU saved is a BTU earned.
I have no idea what the “proper” proportion is, so I just used the amount of each that I harvested, going easy on the lavender because it’s quite strong and I was shooting for a balanced result. Obviously one could swap or add in any number of other herbs, depending on what is available. It’s remarkable, for example, how minty fresh oregano smells. And mint, every bit as unruly and aggressive as oregano in its growing habits, is always asking for a haircut. Although I have a bowl of fennel seeds drying as well, I left them out and will store them separately.
I adore lavender. When I lived in Provence, there was a little store near my house that sold it in every form known to humanity, and I would always pause and breathe deeply when I walked in front of their open door. I have a row of lavender plants growing along the garden fence next to the gate, and every time I walk by I fondle them lasciviously and then smell my fingers like a pervert.
Here are the various plants drying on top of the water bath:
I kept them separate because they dry at different rates. Rosemary takes the longest. Be sure your herbs or seeds are fully dry before you put them in cute little jars, or they’ll get moldy and your twee domesticity will collapse in ruins around you, leaving you bereft and empty inside.
Everything else crumbles up nicely into bits when dry, but the thyme leaves need some rubbing to come free of their stems. I do it over a colander that lets the little leaves through easily but catches the bigger bits.
And then—and this is the tricky bit— you mix them all together in a jar. So far, in its very short life of less than a week, I have used this mixture on lamb and in ratatouille, pasta sauce, bean soup, and salad dressing. THERE’S NOTHING IT CAN’T DO.