Fines herbes (pronounced feen-ZAIRB) designates an important combination of herbs that forms a mainstay of French cuisine. The canonic fines herbes of French haute cuisine comprise finely chopped parsley, chives, tarragon, and chervil. These are employed in seasoning delicate dishes such as chicken, fish, and eggs, that need a relatively short cooking period and also used in a beurre blanc sauce for seasoning such dishes. Fines herbes are also eaten raw in salads.
The classic mixture
It is a mistake to serve, under the name Omelette aux fines herbes, an omelet in which chopped parsley furnishes the only aromatic note. This error is too widespread for us to hope to overturn it. Nevertheless, it should be stressed that an omelette aux fines herbes must contain: parsley, chives, and a little chervil and tarragon.
Thirty-five years later, under the entry "Fines Herbes", the authoritative Larousse Gastronomique of 1938 conceded that, generally speaking, an Omelette aux fines herbes was still most frequently being seasoned only with chopped parsley, but repeated Escoffier's admonition that it ought to contain a combination of fragrant herbs, "such as, parsley, chervil, tarragon, and also chives." For in former times this was the traditional practice (la pratique ancienne), when "to the aforementioned herbs, chopped mushrooms, and even truffles, would be added."
Julia Child also echoes Escoffier: "A mixture of fresh parsley, chives, tarragon, and chervil is called fines herbes," while Alan Davidson, author of The Oxford Companion to Food, identifies chopped fresh parsley as the minimalist basis of the fines herbes mix, with the addition of "any (or all) of: chervil, tarragon, chives," noting that the number of different herbs to be used is far from fixed. Food scientist Harold McGee's definition, on the other hand, limits the number of fines herbes to tarragon, chervil, chive, and omits parsley altogether. McGee also recommends that the herbs be finely chopped using a sharp knife rather than a food processor, "since food processors slice into herbs and introduce a lot of air and therefore aroma-altering oxygen."
A living tradition, such as cooking, is always subject to variation and re-creation. For example, in his memoirs, the late Pierre Franey, former chef at Le Pavillon and long-time New York Times columnist, vividly recalled his trepidation when as an teenaged apprentice chef, he was ordered to prepare a simple "omelette aux fines herbes—three eggs, chervil, parsley, tarragon, chives—the first omelette I was assigned to prepare for paying guests, after a considerable amount of practicing on others." In his anxiety he almost spoiled the dish. Yet, in his accompanying recipe for Americans printed in the same book, Franey substitutes basil for the chervil, doubtless because especially in the United States, chervil, unless home grown, can be virtually impossible to obtain when fresh and is virtually worthless when dried.
As "noble herbs"
In general, definitions of the fines herbes group in American cook books have tended to be somewhat elastic. James Beard's Fireside Cookbook (1949), for example, contains a recipe for what he calls a "Fines Herbes Bowl", a dip featuring chopped parsley, chives, dill, chopped green pepper, and salt, mixed into a pint of sour cream. In his subsequent discussion of "Salad Herbs", Beard lists: 1) Tarragon: "The most pleasant salad herb .... Use the fresh if you can"; 2) Chervil, which he calls "delicate and subtle"; 3) Fresh Dill, which Beard recommends especially for salads containing cucumber or cabbage; and 4) Sweet Basil: a "a natural complement to tomatoes". Beard identifies these four herbs—tarragon, chervil, dill, and basil—as, "the noblest of the salad herbs", noting parenthetically, however, that "some people like to use a little thyme or rosemary." Finally, the basis of the French fines herbes lineup: parsley, although not one of Beard's aforementioned "noble" salad herbs, yet "adds much to many salad mixtures, although in a green salad it has perhaps less place." Oddly, in this discussion of salad herbs, Beard omits chives altogether, though earlier, on page 16 he had called chives, "welcome in practically any dish; enhances other flavorings."
Versus robust herbs
The "fines herbes" are sometimes contrasted with the more pungent or resinous "robust herbs" that appear in a bouquet garni and which, unlike fines herbes, release their flavor in long cooking. However, there is some inconsistency and overlap in terminology.
- C’est une erreur de servir sous le nom d’Omelette aux fines herbes, une omelette où le persil haché fournit la seul note aromatique. Cette erreur est trop répandue pour que nous espérions en triompher, mais nous tenons à rappeler néanmoins, qu’une omelette aux fines herbes doit comporter: persil, ciboulette, et un peu cerfeuil et d’estragon. --Auguste Escoffier, La guide culinaire, aide-mémoire de cuisine pratique (1903) p. 242.
- Prosper Montagné, Larousse Gastronomique, with prefaces by Georges Auguste Escoffier and Philéas Gilbert (1938), p. 470. André Simon's entry Fines Herbes, in his Dictionary of Gastronomy (The Overlook Press, 1978, unpaged), repeats this information, adding that in addition to omelets, the fines herbes can be used to season salads or a grilled steak.
- Julia Child, Mastering the Art of French Cooking vol. I (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961), p. 18.
- Alan Davidson, Oxford Companion to Food (Oxford University Press), p. 307.
- Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of Cooking (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007), p. 398
- McGee, On Food and Cooking, p. 399.
- PIerre Franey, A Chef's Tale (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1994), p. 47
- Recently, chervil has begun to be grown as a microgreen, primarily for the restaurant trade.
- James Beard, The Fireside Cookbook: A Complete Guide to Fine Cooking for Beginner and Expert (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1949), p, 24.
- Beard held chervil in such high esteem that he recommended that chervil, "when used should be the only herb added. Too frequently people mix many herbs together and lose the benefit that would be given by one alone." Yet on page 17 of the Fireside Cookbook Beard had called chervil, "Perfect in a salad with another flavoring to support it"!
- Beard, Fireside Cookbook, p. 197.