We all have our favorite herbs. Personally I could not imagine a world without Thyme. Being a son of Provence, one of my earliest childhood memory is running through scented hills covered in wild thyme (something to avoid in spring as I discovered, with bees being very keen on its subtle flowers too!) and collecting huge bundles for my great grandmother who would turn them upside down and allow to dry for a few days in her little wooden outhouse. She would use its dried leaves for a number of preserves (one of her many recipes appears below) and she’d brew her own “tisane” (herbal tea) by adding a sprig of rosemary and a handful of common verbena to a handful of thyme.
The other one I can’t live without either is Rosemary.
Thyme (otherwise ungallantly known as Thymus vulgaris) is an all purpose herb and a godsend. There are over one hundred varieties of thyme, with the most common being Garden Thyme and Lemon Thyme, the other one being wild. The many types are so close in appearance, it is often difficult to differentiate them (well, the bees can). Its history is quite extraordinary and not just in a culinary sense: ancient Egyptians used it in embalming and the ancient Greeks used it in their baths and burnt it as incense in their temples, believing that it was a source of courage. The Romans spread it all over Europe as they used it to purify their rooms and to “give an aromatic flavor to cheese” – although I’ve heard these rumor but can’t really confirm, it could be just Medieval lore. I like this though:
Thyme was also used as incense and placed on coffins during funerals as it was supposed to assure passage into the next life.
This pure thyme honey is made a stone’s throw from my ancestral home.
There are three varieties usually grown for use, the broad-leaved, narrow-leaved and variegated: the narrow-leaved, with small, grayish-green leaves, is more aromatic than the broad-leaved, and is also known as Winter or German thyme. The fragrant lemon thyme (fantastic in seafood dishes), likewise grown in gardens, has a pronounced lemon flavor, and rather broader leaves than the ordinary garden thyme.
I might add that in my neck of the woods, the south of France, wild thyme is a symbol of extreme Republicanism, tufts of it being sent with the summons to a Republican meeting. Thyme was grown in monastery gardens in southern France and in Spain and Italy during the Middle Ages for use as a cough remedy, digestive aid and treatment for intestinal parasites.
Thyme grows easily and can be increased tenfold from cuttings or seed.
To achieve optimum results, plant the seed indoors in early spring. Thyme is very hardy and will grow under most conditions, as a small border or in loose pots. It prefers full sun and a soil that is light and sandy, or loamy and requires minimal fertilization. The pic below is from one our window pots.
A solution of thyme’s most active ingredient, thymol, thyme’s most active ingredient, is used in such over-the-counter products as Listerine mouthwash and Vicks VapoRub because of its well-known antibacterial and antifungal properties. Thymol apparently also has a therapeutic effect on the lungs. Ingesting or inhaling the oil helps to loosen phlegm and relax the muscles in the respiratory tract.
As promised, this is a knock-out recipe for preserved mushrooms as given to me by my great-grandmother, a most wonderful woman who survived two world wars and an irascible husband, a scholar of Provencal lore and a magnificent cook. I still miss her terribly. Every October weekends, we used to walk deep into the woods and collect mushrooms. We would gather, if memory serves well, at least enough for twelve, roughly gallon-sized glass jars. The mushrooms were soaked in water overnight, then cooked as such: for every five liters of water a liter of red wine (home-made of course) vinegar was added to the pot alongside a generous handful of rock salt for each batch. The mushrooms would simmer gently for five hours or until they became almost as hard as stones (the longer you boil a mushroom in a vinegar solution the harder it becomes). Then they would end up on a rack by the stove to drain quietly before lining up the glass jar, one by one, pressed down, dotted with sprigs of thyme, all the way up to the top. Olive oil would then be poured slowly and a large rubber top would be used to seal before the steel cap was fixed on. The finished product was sensational: great in omelets, divine on crusty bread rubbed with garlic, in salads and in hearty winter stews. You can use ordinary Paris mushrooms if you like (otherwise known as button mushrooms), the result will be the same, so whenever you see a whole box going cheaply, grab it and preserve away!
Pic of my childhood village, Agay.
This simple Ratatouille recipe is from my little village. We use thyme & rosemary instead of basil. For 4 to 6 servings: 2 aubergines (eggplants); 2 onions; 2 red peppers; 2 green peppers; 4 courgettes (zucchini); 8 large ripe tomatoes; 4 tbsp olive oil; 6 cloves garlic; 4 sprigs fresh thyme; 2 sprigs of rosemary; salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste.
Chop up the onions, dice the aubergines, courgettes and peppers, mince the garlic. In a large frying pan heat 2 tablespoons of virgin olive oil. Add the onions, garlic and aubergines. Cook on quite a high heat for 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Then add the peppers, and cook another 2 minutes. Then add the courgettes and cook another 2 minutes. Then add the tomatoes, the fresh thyme and the rosemary. Cover the pan and let it stew gently for 10-15 minutes (note that in the olden days this recipe called for celery as well, as it was then the emblem of Provence).
One of the traditional Sunday roast in the south of France is thyme chicken baked with potatoes, a dish so easy to prepare it defies gravity! Or gravitas.
It’s best, if you can, to procure yourself with a free range bird of size 1.5–2kg (2.5 – 5lb), 6 to 8 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed, 6 to 8 waxy potatoes, peeled and thickly sliced, 2 lemons, a large knob of butter and salt & black pepper to taste.
Place the chicken in a large roasting dish. Rub it with soft butter, then sprinkle with the thyme leaves and season with salt and pepper, inside and out. Using a small knife, insert slices of lemon and garlic cloves under the skin and inside the cavity. Place in a preheated oven at 180°C for 1 and a half hours. After 50 minutes, remove from the oven and arrange the sliced potatoes around the chicken, spoon the juices over them and cook for a further 40 minutes. And it’s done. A simple delight, with minimal fuss and natural juices.
And of course thyme is a major contributor to a traditional “Bouquet Garni“, a must in French cuisine.