I’ve chosen thyme as this month’s herb because although there are some new arrivals as the weather warms up, e.g. chives and sorrel, they are unlikely to be large enough to pick until April. With luck, and as the Queen of Herbs, Jekka McVicar observes, “providing you are not too greedy”, you can pick fresh thyme all year round.
Thyme is an immensely popular herb, both for the cook and the gardener. There are many, many species within the genus, making them very collectable, but I will concentrate chiefly on Thymus vulgaris – Common Thyme, with a brief mention of a few others that I find particularly useful from a culinary standpoint.
First a word about cultivating thyme. It is a drought loving plant – especially good news in this year when droughts are expected throughout the UK. So it needs to be grown in a bed that drains well, and the soil itself should not be too rich in nutrients, otherwise it becomes soft, leggy and lacking in flavour. This you will be familiar with if you have ever wasted your money on supermarket pot-grown thyme – you can grow thyme in pots very successfully, although they need to be larger than windowsill sized. Pots could be the solution if your garden is in a very exposed or wet position as the pots can then be given some protection in winter. It is established by taking softwood cuttings of the new growth when it has reached about 8cm (3″) in the spring. It is also essential to trim all thymes after flowering, not only to keep them compact, but also to promote new growth.
Thyme is in such frequent use in the kitchen that I find it hard to comprehend any cook not having a plant close at hand. Firstly it is a key member of a bouquet garni, the others being parsley and bay. This trio is added whenever you make stock and for most casseroles. As the name suggests, these herbs can be tied together in a bouquet for easy removal.
But thyme is also an extremely popular flavouring all on its own. It does grow wild, typically being cropped by rabbits, and so this combination was the inspiration for one of my recipe suggestions this month. However, this is by no means the only combination in which I use thyme as the major flavouring – I love it with trout, particularly the Lemon Thyme variety, and as trout fishing will open on our local lake later this month, the Jamie Oliver recipe for this will be bound come in useful soon after. Then for, or around, Easter time, I love to cook chicken in a similar way. Want a vegetarian option? Stephen Markwick’s Leek and Cream Tart recipe or, later in the year, a red onion tart with thyme, or a goat’s cheese soufflé with thyme all immediately spring to mind. Thyme works well in sweet dishes too. It can be used on its own in an ice cream or baked with fruits such as peaches or pears.
Thyme has strong antiseptic properties so an infusion used as a gargle can help sore throats or gum infections. It also aids digestion, especially by breaking down fatty foods. Any amount of the fresh plant will be perfectly safe, but do not be tempted to use the essential oil internally. A few drops can however be added to bath water to ease rheumatic pain or added to a massage oil.