Spice up your life!
Updated: Apr 12
How many of you think about French cuisine as rich, fat, and unhealthy food?
There is some truth to it, depending on what kind of French cuisine you are referring to. As you may know, French cuisine has evolved over the centuries and, even more so, the last few decades.
Medieval banquets featured a lot of meat, mostly game – Consequently, spices were vastly used because royalty could afford those (then) expensive and precious commodities that would serve the purpose of covering up the taste of the pheasant or the wild bore that had sat on the kitchen block table a bit too long.
Today, French cuisine uses more herbs - mostly fresh herbs - than spices, by far. French food is not spicy, but it is heavily seasoned with fresh (not dried) herbs ranging from tarragon, chives, rosemary, thyme, parsley, cilantro, mint and sage, to some less common herbs such as lemon balm or angelica. The herbs are, more often than not, part of the artistry of the plate.
Most chefs will tell you that you should never mix herbs together because each one is unique. What about herbs of Provence, you might ask? Those are mixed, dried herbs - rosemary, thyme, basil, marjoram, savory, sometimes lavender. Even though this combination of herbs would really be odd as fresh herbs, they really work well as dry herbs, and they are used generously in most Mediterranean dishes and with meats (pork and beef). They are a staple in French kitchens.
What about the Provençal rub? That is another must-have in your pantry. Less known than the herbs of Provence, you guessed it though, the Provençal rub is also from… Provence, the heart of fragrances and colors. Remember, Grasse (on the French Riviera in Provence) is the world capital of perfumery. There is no lack of flowers, herbs and aromatic plants there.
The Provençal rub (garlic, chili pepper, salt, rosemary, marjoram, and thyme) is a distinct mix, and it works in a very unique way, especially combined with lemon juice and olive oil. Knowing that lemon and olive trees are highly prolific in the South of France, we did not have to travel too far to figure this one out. In my opinion, this rub produces the best peppery emphasis for grilled or marinated chicken. A great find, some of you will say.
On the sweet side, the most famous spice mix in France is designed specifically for the “Pain d’Epices”, a soft, very moist bread made with honey, absolutely delicious. The spice mix includes cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, star anis, pepper, nutmeg, sweet pepper, clove, coriander seed, and is a must for the success of the recipe, as each spice is measured to perfection.
“Pain d’Epices” simply cannot be described as it is so very unique. You have to try it to understand its subtlety, its “one of a kind” taste, its “yesteryear” character, its rugged feeling.
So, what exactly is the difference between herbs and spices?
First let’s start with the herbs, the leaves of the plant such as basil, sage, parsley, rosemary, which you can either eat fresh or dried. I personally think that herbs lose their true, original flavor once you dry them or once you cook them. I love them fresh, right from the plant, true to themselves, fully aromatic and filled with vitamins. There is nothing more refreshing than a few leaves of fresh basil minced on a tomato salad with a drizzle of olive oil or a leaf of fresh mint in a natural lemonade or some sparkling water.
Now, what is left if you remove the leaves of the plant? The flowers or the berries, the seeds, the stems, the roots… Those will be crushed, ground, sometimes reduced to very fine powder, in other words turned into spices, mostly used to season our cooked meals and flavor our baked goods. Nutmeg (a seed), ginger (a root), paprika (from red pepper, i.e. a fruit), allspice (from berries), curry powder (from pepper, mustard seeds, turmeric roots) are all considered spices, and, as we all know, they can be formidably powerful, much more so than fresh herbs.
A spice can be like a mardi gras mask. The look can be radically different depending on the mask – Venetian, Egyptian, Gypsy… Behind the mask, the face remains the same, but the looks are as many as the masks. Some simple chicken can turn into curry chicken, provençal chicken, or sesame chicken. The possibilities are as many as the spices.
Have fun with spices, use your spices, try some new spices. They will spice up your meals. They will spice up your life. Don’t we all need that?!
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