Thyme, for many people, brings up happy memories of eating traditional roast chicken with thyme and onion stuffing, or classic turkey with sage and thyme at thanksgiving. For others it is associated with pasta sauces and pizza. But alas – poor thyme, she seems to always be the bridesmaid, never the bride – destined to work tirelessly as a culinary Cinderella in the kitchen. No more, it’s time for this Cinderella to go to the ball and play centre stage. She’s quite capable of competing with those other flashy herbs like coriander, mint, basil and parsley, and once you get addicted to her clean yet bracing pungency, you will find yourself reaching for thyme more and more!
Thymus is native to southern Europe from the western Mediterranean to southern Italy, and for thousands of years it has been a superstar of the herb garden both for its culinary and healing properties. Although it remains one of the most important herbs of the European kitchen, it is also used in a multitude of cuisines all over the world, from the Mediterranean to Mexico, and in dishes as diverse as casseroles, chillies, curries and chowders.
The beautiful hills of Greece are covered with wild thyme, and when it blooms they are painted pink and lavender by the profusion of tiny blossoms, from which a delicious and plentiful honey is still produced today. Thyme always played a star role in Greek kitchens and was also used to preserve food. Even the goats and sheep were encouraged to graze on the wild plants to keep them healthy and improve the flavour of the meat produced. Thyme was widely used medicinally, as well as in massage and bath oils, and was even considered to be an aphrodisiac. It was so revered that it was burnt as incense in temples, and the phrase “to smell of thyme” became an expression of stylish praise and elegance among the elite. Even the origins of the word thyme are from the Greek word thymon, meaning courage.
Modern Greeks continue this love affair with thyme and a lovely old Greek saying “I ate bread and olives with him” denotes an act of friendship. Visitors to Greece will attest to how divine “Greek olives” are as a simple snack, served only with fresh bread! They may wonder, however, what that unique flavour is in the background? Well, of course, its thyme, and in this traditional recipe the little wrinkly black olives are marinated in olive oil, vinegar and thyme. Adventurous cooks even add it to sweet dishes for an unexpectedly mouth-watering touch, so, if you love the cuisine, thyme is one Greek herb that you just have to have around.
Thyme is also absolutely essential in French cuisine and both wild and hybridised varieties are used for cooking. Most of the wild thyme in France comes from the Garrigues in Languedoc-Rousillon, the Maquis in Provence and Corsica, where this little evergreen can be found growing abundantly all year round on windy and stony, practically treeless hills. Corsica is famous for its six AOP honeys, two of which come from bees that collect pollen from herbs, and especially wild thyme. Although dried thyme is available, no French chef will choose it over fresh thyme, and whether its wild or cultivated, thyme will be flavouring sauces and soups, fish and poultry, lamb, veal, fish and, of course, herbal butters. Thyme is also a common component of the “herbes de Provence” – a traditional blend of aromatic herbs that flourish in the hills of southern France during the hot summer months. Bay leaf, thyme, fennel, rosemary, chervil, oregano, summer savory, tarragon, mint, and marjoram are some of the herbs typically used.
In ancient Rome thyme was associated with courage, bravery and strength, and soldiers bathed in waters scented with thyme to prepare themselves for battle, and exchanged sprigs of thyme as a sign of respect. The Scottish highlanders of old would prepare a tea of wild thyme for the same purpose, as well as for warding off nightmares. During the Middle Ages, European ladies embroidered a sprig of thyme on tunics for their knights as a token of courage. It was also believed that eating thyme either before or during a meal would protect you from poison.
In Egypt it was thought to be a powerful aid to those making their passage into the next life, and used as an embalming herb. When the Black Death struck Europe in the late 1340s, millions of people turned to thyme, together with other herbs, for relief and protection. Today we know that one of the chemical compounds in thyme called “thymol” is a powerful antiseptic and interestingly, many of today’s medicinal concoctions contain the same herbs as those used during this time in the form of posies tied around the neck, or poultices applied directly to plague-blistered skin. Another sombre side to thyme was that, long before its antiseptic qualities were proven, Victorian nurses knew that washing bathing bandages in a dilution of thyme water helped prevent infection. The Victorians also added a fanciful spin to thyme, with tales that patches of wild thyme were evidence that fairies had danced the night away on that very spot.
Thyme remained one of Europe’s favourite culinary herbs, with monasteries making frequent use of it in their breads, soups and roasts, and in the days before refrigeration, including thyme in recipes gave some protection against spoiled meat and foodborne disease. Its history is too vast to cover here, but hopefully you are now inspired by timeless thyme, its uses are far-reaching.
Thyme has many medicinal uses and we now know it contains a powerful volatile oil called “thymol”, known for its powerful antiseptic, antiviral and antibacterial properties. Thymol is the main active ingredient in various commercially produced mouthwashes such as Listerine, used to kill bacteria in the mouth. Because of its powerful antiseptic, antiviral and antibacterial properties fresh thyme tea is an effective treatment for the whole respiratory system and will strengthen the lungs. It is also one of many liver detox foods and a great immune system booster.
Its leaves are one of the richest sources of potassium, iron, calcium, manganese, magnesium, and selenium. Potassium is an important component of cell and body fluids that helps controlling heart rate and blood pressure. Manganese is used by the body as a co-factor for the antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase; and iron is required for red blood cell formation. The herb is also a rich source of many important vitamins such as B-complex vitamins, beta carotene, vitamin A, vitamin K, vitamin E, vitamin C, and folic acid. Vitamin A is required to maintain healthy mucus membranes and skin and is also essential for vision; and vitamin B-6 has a role as a stress buster. Thyme is packed with vitamin C, which helps the body develop resistance against infectious agents, and scavenge harmful, pro-inflammatory free radicals; so next time you’re faced with a cough or sore throat, try drinking some thyme tea.
When thyme is steeped in alcohol for days or weeks, it turns into a solution known as a tincture. Researchers in the U.K. have tested the effects of thyme tinctures on acne, and one study showed that this herb preparation fought pimples better than anti-acne products, which included benzoyl peroxide. At home, a tea can be applied to the skin with cotton wool as a toner for acne.
Unlike rosemary, which tends to dominate other flavours in a dish, thyme shares the spotlight with other herbs graciously, giving dishes a delicacy that’s not easy to achieve with any other herb, perfuming foods with its earthy, slightly sour flavour, much like a very mild lemon. Even adding a few leaves to a dish right at the last minute will bring all the other flavours into sharper focus.
Although thyme is used throughout Italian, French, and of course, Mediterranean cooking, going well with almost everything, it is also much beloved in Cajun and Creole cooking and is the primary component of Caribbean jerk seasonings. It has truly attained international status and even features in Mauritian curries. In South Africa, it is often reached for when making pasta sauces and roast meat, or perhaps when slow cooking a soup or stew, but it is time we started looking at thyme in a whole new light because it’s equally at home in a caramel sauce as it is in a dreamy macaroni and cheese!
Not only does this herb taste divine, it also aids digestion by breaking up fatty foods, so reach for thyme when preparing freshwater fish, seafood, poultry and meats – it’s wonderful in stuffing’s, or rubbed on the crackling of your pork joint. Use it to season casseroles, soups, sauces, and marinades, and remember, it adds a wonderful depth of flavour when added to vegetables, pairing especially well with mushrooms, potato, eggplant, marrow, onion, beans and beetroot. Next time you’re frying onions into creamy softness, add some thyme, or add it to rice dishes and omelettes for a delightful variation. Sprinkle it over vegetables before roasting, and when you’re frying mushrooms, add a few bruised thyme leaves along with the garlic – finish with a tiny squeeze of lemon for perfect mushrooms on toast. With cooked dishes, try adding thyme at the beginning and then a little more, just before serving, to make its flavour pop.
You can even sprinkle it into bread dough, especially pizza and focaccia, or you may find you love it lightly incorporated into your Yorkshire pudding batter. Versatile thyme is not only for cooked dishes, so next time you make a tomato salad, try substituting tender young thyme leaves instead of Basil for a delightful change. Beaten into softened butter it will add a final, melting element of deliciousness to a juicy steak or lamb chop, and is certain to have all your friends asking what that delicate flavour is?
The best way to store Thyme is to dry it, and the best time to pick it for drying is when the tiny pinkish flowers start opening. It can also be mixed with a little water and frozen as ice cubes.
There are approximately 300 varieties of thyme, many of which are grown in gardens, either as a groundcover or as a small border or potted plant. Plant them near vegetable and rose gardens or in pebble and rock gardens. Many low-growing varieties will cascade beautifully down steps, low walls and hanging baskets. Thyme will even grow well indoors if placed on a very bright, sunny windowsill.
Another good reason to plant thyme is that many species are used as food plants by the larvae of some butterfly and moth species and are very popular with bees. Thyme will also stimulate the growth of neighbouring plants and loves growing close to lavender, oregano, dill and mint.
Because it is highly aromatic, thyme helps repel the cabbage root fly, whitefly, red spider and aphids; making it a wonderful companion plant for cabbages, onions, egg plants, tomatoes and strawberries.
Thyme is a short-lived evergreen perennial that spreads by rooting on the ground. Varieties vary in height from low, ground-hugging plants to small shrubs about 20 to 40cm tall. This tough little plant is heat and drought tolerant and does well in hot dry climates. Dryer conditions also concentrate the aromatic oils in thyme, so do not overwater your plants, but water moderately during prolonged dry spells, especially if your plants are growing in pots.
Thyme thrives in full sun and grows very well in coastal regions, tolerating strong winds. It is also very cold hardy and will tolerate snow and all but very severe frost. Although it is adapted to alkaline soils which can be chalky, sandy or rocky, thyme will adapt to most garden soils as long as they drain well. If you mulch the roots of your plants regularly with compost, thyme will need no additional feeding. However, potted plants may benefit from an occasional light feeding with an organic fertiliser.
In summer, continual use of the plants will provide enough pruning, but if your plants do become leggy do not be afraid to trim them, in fact, the entire plant can be sheared back by about one third after blooming, but do not prune too harshly at the end of summer, especially if you live in a very cold region. In spring the plants will respond well to a good pruning, a generous layer of compost.
Plants are easily propagated by cuttings, or by dividing rooted sections of the plant. Seeds can also be sown in spring and summer.
Common Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is a bushy little shrub about 20cm tall and 30cm wide with grey-green leaves and masses of tiny pale mauve to pink flowers in summer. It is very savoury and fragrant, making it one of the best thymes for cooking and drying; as well as for flavoured salts and oils.
Golden Thyme (Thymus vulgaris ‘Aureus’) has delightful green and gold leaves and is grown and used in the same manner as common thyme. It makes a decorative edging for garden borders and grows well in a pot.
Lemon Thyme (Thymus x citriodorus ‘Aureus’) has attractive green and lemon-yellow leaves with a delightful lemon-thyme scent, and an abundance of pale pink flowers in summer. It is grown and used in the same way as common thyme, but is more compact. This thyme goes well with sweet dishes too, and also makes a delicious herbal tea. It is a very pretty border plant and grows easily in pots.
Silver Thyme (Thymus x citriodorus ‘Silver Queen’) is a bushy-growing selection of lemon thyme which is a pretty ornamental and, with its exceptional aroma and flavour, one of the best thymes for cooking. This low-growing form has lovely grey-green leaves, variegated with silvery-white; and clusters of lilac-pink flowers in summer. It is also very drought tolerant once established.
Because of its high oil content, thyme is not affected by pests and diseases but is susceptible to root rot, particularly if the soil is too moist. Ants also like to build their nests in thyme beds, but don’t generally kill the plants.
Caution: Excessive amounts of thyme should not be taken by pregnant women or people with a history of kidney stones.
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