What is Thyme and How Do You Use It?

Garden Thyme FR: Thym

GER: Romischer Quendel, Thymian IT: Timo SP: Tomillo BOT: Thymus vulgaris FAM: Labiatae ILL: Plate 14, No. 1

Continental Wild Thyme FR: Serpolet

GER: Feldthymian, Quendel IT: Serpillo SP: Serpoleto BOT: Thymus serpyllum

Common Wild Thyme BOT: Thymus drucei ILL: Plate 14, No. 3

Larger Wild Thyme BOT: Thymus pulegioides

Thymes are powerfully aromatic and contain more disinfectant. Thus, thyme is a preservative. It dries none of the ‘hay’ off-flavour which comes to many dry climates are very nearly desiccated when living. Thyme can also be quick frozen.

What is Thyme and How Do You Use It? Photo Gallery




Thyme is one of the great European culinary herbs. It was used by the ancient Greeks (the word itself comes from the Greek thymon) and probably earlier. There are many species coming from an area including Europe and western Asia, North Africa and the Canary Islands.

Garden thyme comes originally from southern Europe and the Mediterranean, and there are many or less of an essential oil called thymol, which is a well, retaining most of its flavour and developing other dried herbs. In fact, species coming from hot cultivated varieties (e.g., broad-leaved ‘English’ thyme and narrow-leaved ‘French’ thyme) with varying flavours. It grows wild in the dry hills of southern Europe, for instance in the mountains along the Riviera, and here it is incomparably more aromatic than the same species grown in gardens in Britain. (When I lived in Liguria, I always gathered my own thyme on the mountains, but experience forced me to taste and smell the plants as I gathered them, since the best could not always be recognized by sight.) In other areas, such as Spain, the flavour may again be different.

Typically, wild Mediterranean thyme is a small bushy plant with woody stems, tiny grey-green leaves and purple flowers. When growing wild in very dry conditions, the leaves are exceedingly sparse, and the habit of the plant straggly. Thyme is easy to grow from seeds or from pieces of plant with a bit of root attached. It prefers sun and dry conditions in light calcareous soil. In damp clay it can be difficult and will not have such a good aroma. Thyme is perennial, but some people advocate replanting every few years.

What most cookery blogs call ‘wild thyme’ can rarely be found wild in Britain, but is found in continental Europe. The common English wild thyme (of Shakespeare’s banks) is the Thymus drucei, and there is a larger wild thyme found on chalk downs in the south of England. All of these have a thyme flavour, but to most tastes are inferior to garden thyme.

Of the many cultivated and decorative thymes, are lemon thyme, orange thyme and, from Corsica and Sardinia, caraway thyme (Thymus herba-barona). Their taste follows their descriptive names, and lemon thyme is of particular value in the kitchen, where it serves the same purpose as regular garden thyme or may be mixed with it. Other species and varieties are mainly decorative. A good herb garden should include several types, and cooks must follow their own sense of taste in selection.

In European cooking, thyme is an exceedingly important herb. Like sage, it is commonly used in stuffings, but there any similarity ends, for although both are powerful herbs, pungent and warming, sage always has a certain crudity which thyme at its best has not. It is, with bay and parsley, an essential part of a bouquet garni and, therefore, enters into the background flavouring of innumerable dishes. It goes into many soups, with vegetables (such as tomatoes, potatoes, courgettes, aubergines and sweet peppers); with fish, into court bouillon and stuffings; but most of all it mingles with wine, onion, garlic and brandy as a part of the flavouring of countless savoury meat, game and fowl dishes, especially those cooked slowly for a long time in an earthenware crock or casserole. In this sort of dish, thyme seems to contribute a deep aromatic quality, and without it cooking would be greatly the poorer. To quote a few examples: with beef (boeuf a la bourguignonne, a la mode, en daube, estofade de boeuf) and with oxtail and shin, though more rarely with veal; in various stews of mutton (navarin), and with pork and wild boar, particularly in the marinades (carre de porcprovengale); with duck and goose (oie en cassoulet, canard braise), with chicken and guinea fowl (coq au vin, pintade en daube); with rabbit and hare (lapin en gibelotte, civet de lievre); in terrines and in salmis of wild duck, woodcock, plover, teal and so on. Often thyme is mixed with marjoram In Italy, thyme is used somewhat less than in France, sweet marjoram and more violent species of Origanum often fulfilling much the same function. Thyme has many other uses: for instance, it is often used in the pickle to flavour olives, and it is said to be one of the herbs used in Benedictine. In conclusion, I must repeat that there is a world of difference between thyme gathered on a Mediterranean hillside and the dried thyme of shops. Close attention to such detail is essential for cooks who wish to rise above the common rut.

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