In the 17th and 18th centuries, herb gardens were, first and foremost, utilitarian. They were found at the homes of everyone who had a garden, noble or common folk, though the gardens of the latter were not as symmetrical as those of the former, and seeding was done abundantly in heaps.
These herbs were essential to everyday life: they gave flavour to foods, they perfumed people and their homes, they healed better than doctors of the day, and some are even used to make potions to chase away demons. The plants had many uses and were not rigidly categorized. Chives, for example, were used in the kitchen, but the flower was included in bouquets and the leaves had medicinal uses. The apothecary’s rose bush was used for its medicinal properties and yarrow, which attracts bees, was also used in bouquets, in the kitchen or in infusions.
Aromatic and medicinal herbs were planted along walls, near the houses, in the middle or around the edge of plots. They were much used for their capacity to keep away harmful insects. They were also grown along with other plants in order that the latter might benefit from some of the herbs’ properties. For example, garlic grows well next to roses and strawberries, borrage with strawberries and squash, rosemary and sage with cabbage and carrots, or savory with beans.
A Few Examples of Fine Herb Use:
Marjoram : Tomatoes with vinaigrette. Seasoned stuffing, braised beef and meat pies. Essential element to a seasoned sauce.
Thyme : Delicate seasoning for sauces, cheeses, meat loaves, liver pâté, veal stuffing and molluscs. Essential component of a garnished bouquet.
Basil : Basil can replace thyme as a condiment. Add to soups, salads, or raw vegetables. Duck seasoned with basil and pistou soup are among the most renowned uses of this herb in Provence.
Long superseded by spices, fine herbs came back in force in the 17th century with the development of modern French gastronomy in the hands of the first great chefs. It was during the 18th century that culinary invention reached its peak as it was called upon for fêtes and fine suppers organized by the king or the nobility. The first great cookbooks were published at this time.
Fine herbs were used in main dishes, stuffing and pousset, an herb spice used to flavour soups. But they are used as more than just condiments: they are often used for their scent and particularly for their medicinal properties. Be it garlic, mint, borage, onion, livèche or hyssop, their curative properties are as appreciated as their taste.
In the 17th century, fragrant plants were very popular. Cleanliness being relative, essence of lavender or of rosemary allowed one to mask odours. Rose water and violet water were also much appreciated. In the house, pouches of herbs were used to perfume cabinets and chase away insects.
The medicinal properties of herbs have been used since the dawn of time. They have left their mark in archaeological digs, in oral tradition and in books. For millennia they helped humans heal themselves. Even today they are ingredients in many medications. Plant-based treatments include decoctions, infusions and macerations by which are crated potions, herb teas, elixirs, medicinal wines, syrups, powders, pills, poultices, plasters, ointments and liniments.
In herb gardens, it was the women who cared for the plants and saw to the harvest while her husband saw to the hoeing, cutting and palissage.
Les sauvagesses et les françoises mal-intentionnées croient que le sang-dragon a la vertu de pousser puissamment les mois et qu’il pouvoit causer l’avortement.
17th century medicine consisted of establishing a link between the ill and the remedy. While general remedies acted upon the balance of the four humours (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood), specific remedies were prescribed according to the théorie des signatures. Accordingly, the form and colour of a lear, flower or root indicated its link to an organ and disease. For example, sang-dragon was used to induce menstruation.