Visit any French market and one of the delights you will almost certainly be met with is the sight and aroma of myriad fresh and dried herbs and spices. Indeed, herbs have been at the very foundations of French life for centuries, both for culinary and therapeutic use. The ancient Greeks and Romans were great users of herbs, seeing little distinction between their employment for their flavour or medicinal properties. These precious plants were a day-today part of life, and with the movement of the Romans into France, where many species already grew wild thanks to a similar climate, their popularity quickly spread there too.
From the Middle Ages, the beneficial properties of certain plants started to become more widely studied, with the first references to herbalists – or herboristes – appearing in the 14th century. This soon developed into three distinct areas of expertise in France – the herbalist, the apothecary, and the pharmacist.
Herbalists were essentially carrying on the know-how passed on from ancient times, while apothecaries and pharmacists honed and developed this knowledge further, blending and refining for greater beneficial effect.
Today, France still has an active commitment to herbal remedies, with tinctures, teas, infusions and tisanes very much a part of everyday life, although much diminished from the fairly recent past. In 1940 there were around 4,500 herbalists in France, but today only a dozen or so remain, such as Père Blaize in Marseille; established in 1815, it’s a fascinatingly fragrant place to visit.
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