by Elise Pearlstine There is limestone all around shoving its way up through the grasses, shrubs and trees of the surrounding mountains and valleys. A breeze blows by with the scent of aromatic plants, clean, herbal and slightly astringent. Rosemary hangs over a rock wall by an old olive press that is preserved in a small roadside park. The large, lacy white flowers of Queen Anne’s lace (wild carrot) poke their showy heads above the vegetation of the fields and sway in the breeze. I am disappointed that the lavender fields are few and far between along the main road but we spot a few and enjoy the hazy purple view. The mountains in the south of France are in the Mediterranean biome. Plants characteristic of this region are often strongly aromatic in a resinous, sharp, herbal way and the warm dry summers and mild winters support a variety of such plants. Its location at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa has led to a high diversity of plant life and a large number of unique plant species. Many familiar herbs have their origin here and many others grow well in the region. Oregano, rosemary, lavender, thyme and savory are all characteristic herbs and may be used in flavoring many dishes or may be distilled for their essential oils. Many of these are readily available at local nurseries and can be grown outdoors or indoors to provide fresh herbs year round. The primary ingredient in growing herbs indoors is a window with bright sunshine – south or southeast is best. Check to see if you get at least five hours of sun per day, that it is away from cold drafts and provides plenty of room for your plants to grow. You can use individual pots or find a long container that may hold several different herbs. It is best to have pots about 6 inches wide and at least as deep for your herbs. Many herbs are sold in peat containers that are not suitable for container growing so you will need to pick up a nice pot while you are at the nursery to transplant your herb. Use a good, light soil mix that drains well, fill the bottom few inches with soil, position your plant in the center of the pot. Add soil to about 1 inch from the top and pat down firmly. It is important to keep the soil moist but not wet, check with your finger before watering. Once you see new growth on your plant you can begin clipping fresh leaves to use for cooking. Herbes de Provence refers to a mixture of herbs that are characteristic of the region and of the local cuisine. Many grocery stores carry a mixture labeled as such and the ingredients vary. An internet search will also bring up many recipes. I asked my good and lovely friend Claire Martin-Garrigue about herbes de Provence. She lives in Lyon and is a self-described foodie. She pointed me to a wonderful French website with a description of the herbs and some mouth-watering recipes (http://www.herbes-de-provence.org). The blend of dry herbs from that website is as follows: 3 percent basil, 19 percent thyme, 26 percent rosemary, 26 percent savory and 26 percent oregano. In teaspoons, it translates as basil = ¼ tsp, thyme = 1 1/2 tsp, rosemary = 2 1/8 tsp, savory = 2 1/8 tsp, oregano = 2 1/8 tsp. Claire tells me that the savory is an important part of the formula.
Escalivade (Escalivada) Recipe
Herbes de Provence can be used as a seasoning for grilling vegetables such as zucchini, eggplant and onions, ham or fish. Here is a simple recipe for Escalivade, a dish thats originates in the Mediterranean using these native herbs. Prepare a marinade of the herb blend in olive oil with salt and black pepper. Slice your vegetables (zucchini, eggplant, sweet peppers and onions, tomatoes if you’d like) lengthwise and add whole garlic cloves to taste. Marinate for 15 minutes, or an hour, or 4 hours. Roast or grill the vegetables just until cooked and sprinkle with vinegar if you will be serving them cold. Enjoy with some lovely bread, wine and good company. Note: if you would like to keep the vegetables for later, sprinkle them with a little bit of vinegar when you get them out of the grill or oven.