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Thyme used to be grown in monastery gardens in the south of France, Spain and Italy around the Middle ages for the use as a digestive aid, cough remedy and a treatment for intestinal parasites (no, not Alien3!). But poor old thyme, it’s sometimes seen as the ugly duckling of the herb world. It doesn’t have the extravagant display of blossoms that sage does, nor does it have a distinctive taste like tarragon.
But it IS an invaluable element in the kitchen; it blends itself so nicely and enhances many other herbs without overpowering them. Of course, everyone knows the ingredients of ‘bouquet garni’ (sprigs of parsley, leaves of bay and thyme for those who didn’t). It can be added to give depth to soups, sauces and my favourite – stews.
There are over 100 varieties of thyme, but three are used more often in the kitchen. Lemon thyme is an upright shrub that can grow to a foot in height, the leaves are tiny and heart shaped ringed with a little yellow and has a bit of a citrus tang. Caraway thyme is a low growing variety which forms a dense, dark green mat and can spread quickly, but is a pretty version with it’s soft, pink blossoms, although it’s difficult to find it’s especially tasty in sauces with garlic and wine. Then we have the common/garden thyme, a shrub that can grow between 6-12 inches, with its narrow, pale grey/green leaves, hairy stems and its pungent or ‘woody’ smell.
You can start thyme off from seeds to get a wider selection, but try the three above first. The plant prefers a sandy, dry soil with plenty of sun, but by mulching heavily it should keep the roots nice and warm. Once established, you only need to remove dead flowers and prune the old wood out. Harvesting thyme is just as easy, but the flavour is best just before flowering, try not to take too much during it’s first year though, it comes as a shock to the root bowl.
Thymol or the oil of thyme, is the most active ingredient and it’s used in Listerine mouthwash and Vicks Vaporub because of its antibacterial and anti-fungal attributes. It has also been suggested that it has a healing effect on the lungs. Inhaling the oil over a bowl helps loosen phlegm (yes, I got that word into an op!) and relaxes the muscles to help you breath easier.
It can also be rubbed on warts, something I’ve never tried and you can take it as a tea, but in my opinion it tastes flaming horrible, I’ll stick with my Assam thank you very much! Investigating this herb I read that it has anti-aging properties, so it might be worth trying out. Watch out though, apparently, excessive internal use of garden thyme can lead to symptoms of poisoning and over stimulation of the thyroid gland (and we don’t want that, do we?)
I personally use it in stews and in vinegar, I buy a bottle of Sarsons, pour away about quarter and pop some sprigs inside the bottle, over chips it’s lovely.