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Poor thyme. In some ways it seems to be the Ugly Duckling of the herb world. It doesn't have the lavish display of blossoms that sage does. Nor does it get the outpouring of attention that basil receives during the height of its session. Even its flavor lacks the distinctive sweet licorice taste that makes tarragon a favorite. And yet, while it seldom gets top billing, thyme is an invaluable element in the kitchen: it blends with and enhances many other herbs without overpowering them.
Thyme is best known as one of the primary components in a classic bouquet garni. When combined with fresh sprigs of parsley and leaves of bay, it will enliven and give depth to the flavor of soups, stews and sauces. A native of the sunny Mediterranean hillsides, thyme is also a key element in the traditional, dried, aromatic blend Herbes de Provence. Experts disagree as to exactly which herbs should be included. One lists thyme, rosemary, lavender and summer savory; while my small terra cotta container of herbs, brought back from France, lists thyme, basil, savory, fennel and lavender flowers. All agree that thyme and lavender are essential. No matter what the combination, the blend makes an ideal seasoning for meats, and gives stews, sauces, vegetables and dressings a rich taste that conjures up images of sunny hillsides.
While there are over 100 varieties of thyme, all of which are fragrant to some extent, there are three that have a special place in the kitchen: lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus), caraway thyme (Thymus herba-barona), and common thyme (Thymus vulgaris).
Lemon thyme is a compact, upright shrub that grows to a height of 12 inches. The leaves are tiny and heart shaped, ringed with a splash of yellow. As the name implies, lemon thyme has a bit of a citrus tang, but is milder than most other thyme. This makes it a natural choice for seasoning seafood dishes and even sweets. The citrus flavor also helps to lighten fatty dishes. The natural, volatile oils also work as a digestive aid. These same pungent oils make lemon thyme a favorite in aroma therapy for the treatment of asthma.
Caraway thyme, although difficult to find, makes an intriguing addition to meat dishes and is especially tasty in combination with garlic and wine. It is a low-growing variety that forms a dense, dark green mat. It spreads quickly, making it a good ground cover, especially with its soft, pink blossoms. Creeping thyme (Thymus drucei) also called "mother of thyme" or "wild thyme," is another low-growing variety, more often used for gardening than for cooking. It is ideal for filling in garden pathways and between stepping stones in areas of light foot traffic, producing a soft, fragrant carpet under foot.
Common or garden thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is the variety with which people are most familiar. A shrubby perennial that grows six to twelve inches, its narrow, pale grey, green leaves have a pungent, woody aroma. A native of the Mediterranean, it grows in areas where there is plenty of sun and good drainage. Drought conditions tends to concentrate the oils, producing a more potent herb. When cooking with thyme be sure to add it early in the process so the oils, and thus the flavor, has time to be released.
The use of thyme has been recorded as far back as 3000 BC when it was used as an antiseptic by the Sumerians. The early Egyptians also used thyme as one of the ingredients in their mummification process.
The hills of Greece are covered with wild thyme, and thyme honey from the tiny pink and lavender blossoms is plentiful. To the ancient Greeks, thyme came to denote elegance, and the phrase "to smell of thyme" became an expression of stylish praise. Thyme was widely used: medically, in massage and bath oils, as incense in the temples and as an aphrodisiac. Even the origins of the word thyme are Greek: from the word thymon meaning "courage."
The Romans also associated thyme with courage and vigor, bathing in waters scented with thyme to prepare themselves for battle. 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, again as a token of courage.
More recently, noted herbalist Culpeper recommended an infusion of thyme to relieve "the headaches occasioned by inebriation."
In literature, thyme is often associated with the activities of fairies. Shakespeare's Oberon, king of the fairies, speaks of knowing "...where the wild thyme grows." The English variety of wild thyme referred to has the highest concentration of volatile oils. Perhaps this accounts for its use as one of the main ingredients in a 17th century recipe which "enables one to see the Faeries."
With its elfin leaves, delicate blossoms and subtle, woodsy flavor, it is easy to see why thyme might be associated with things elusive and magical, even in the kitchen.
Pork Chops With Cabernet/Thyme Glaze
A simple dish to prepare, thyme brings out the woodsy, savory flavor of the meat, with the cabernet jelly making it ideal for a special occasion.
1 pound pork chops
2 large cloves garlic, pressed
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 1/4 teaspoons fresh chopped thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup chicken stock
2 tablespoons Cabernet Sauvignon jelly*
1/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon Herbes de Provence*
In a bowl, combine the pressed garlic, olive oil, thyme, salt and pepper. Mix well. Rub the mixture onto the pork chops, making sure each chop has a good coating. Let the chops marinate for 15 minutes to an hour: the more time, the more intense the flavor. Put the chops in a pan and turn the heat to medium, moving the chops to insure that they don't stick, then turn the heat to high and sear the chops quickly on each side. Remove them from the pan, and keep warm on a plate.
Turn the heat to low. Pour the stock into the hot pan, stirring to release the baked on particles. Add the jelly, mustard and Herbes de Provence, stirring to blend all ingredients. Cook for one minute. Put the chops back in the pan to heat, about two minutes, along with any juices that may have collected on the plate. Be sure to turn the chops over so that both sides get glazed. Serve with rice or polenta, and spoon the glaze over the top of the chops.
*available in most gourmet food stores.
Linda Gilbert is a Bay Area freelance journalist, a cooking class instructor, and co-owner of a Sonoma catering company, Broadway Catering and Events.