Thursday, January 8, 2009

Fines Herbes

Why a post defining something that you can just look up in Wikipedia? Because I am not satisfied with any definition that I can find. The classic French herb mixture called fines herbes ("feen zairb") is not something that can be fully defined as a short list of four herbs, finely minced. And far too many so-called references on the web and in print, including scholarly dictionaries, rush to give their idea of which four herbs comprise fines herbes and many of these authorities' lists are at odds with each other.

What these lists fail to address is the spirit behind fines herbes. Fines herbes are those herbs that in traditional French cooking pair well with seafood, poultry, and other delicately flavored dishes. These are herbs that are finely minced and added at the last minute before service to add both grace and a lightness (I particularly like the French words for this concept: légèreté, délicatesse, grâce).

Years ago as a young man, like the current experts, I used to be certain what the correct four herbs were; however, the older I get, the more things tend to gray, not only my hair. In reality, each chef has a preferred number, combination, and ratio of fines herbes. Although four herbs are traditional, some chefs use more and some use less. Herbs that are more or less traditional are parsley, chervil, chives, tarragon, thyme, dill, and other similar (that is, delicately flavored) herbs.

My favorite combination is parsley, chervil, chives, and very young dill, in equal proportion. I think that chervil gives enough anise flavor to the mix without adding the oft heavy handed tarragon. [Aside: tarragon never was on my list of "delicate" herbs—it is a culinary beast capable of slaying many dishes.] Very young dill is just the ticket for me. But naturally my mix varies depending on what I am cooking, what herbs I have on hand, and what season it is.

What you can infer from my list above is that assertive herbs such as rosemary and oregano do not belong in fines herbes, nor does cilantro which is highly alien in classic French cuisine. Could lemon balm or lemon verbena be a part of my fines herbes mix? That's a definite yes. What about bay? No, it's very pungent. Basil, no, I think not.

I hope you are starting to recognize the picture that I am trying to draw for you. Fines herbes is about fresh, tender, delicately flavored herbs that work well with mild dishes such as poultry, seafood, eggs, clear or cream soups, and salads, added at just the last moment for a touch of freshness and lightness. You would be served well to remember this and forget about the canonical list, which does not exist and probably never did.


  1. Oh how I love fresh herbs! I agree and with some bad experiences have mutilated a dish with tarragon. I do love it in a mild form with chicken and fish but I seem to have been scared away. I think I will try again with a less heavy hand and see what I come up with!!

    I hardly ever use chervil but again, I think I am going to challenge myself. Do you tend to use the leaves or do you also use the root?

    I envy the abilitly to change your menu as you see fit and I tend to get stuck in the rutt of the same ole same ole since to my clients it's not the same ole but to me..........well, you know!!

    Where do you get your fresh herbs on the most part? Do you upkeep the home herb bed or just buy from another source.

  2. Most of the time, I just pluck the leaves off chervil from my garden. It is fairly expensive on the wholesale market, mainly because it has no shelf life. The other drawback is that it wants cool weather. I grow it most successfully in the spring and in the fall.

    In season, I get some herbs from my garden at home (sage, chives, garlic chives, thyme, rosemary), from the planters in front of the restaurant (lemongrass, lemon balm, thyme, oregano, basil, pansies, Johnny Jump Ups, nasturtiums, lavender, chives, mints, rosemary), and from Beth at the farmers market (Thai basil, basil, chives, thyme, bay, and bushels of Italian parsley).

    Over the years, I have had a couple people grow herbs just for the restaurant, but it is a hard business because our thirst for herbs is insatiable ("Thank you now bring me some more!". The rest of the year and when we have huge demand for herbs, we fill in from our wholesaler.

    Really crazy stuff we get from Chef's Garden and some oriental stuff, we get from another restaurant.

    So, whereever we can is the real answer. And, we're always looking for more local growers for hard to find herbs such as stem celery, lovage, savory, marjoram, Chinese chives, epazote, culantro, borage, etc. Volunteers?

  3. Your comment about the "culinary beast capable of slaying many dishes" made me laugh out loud. I know exactly what you mean.