Alas, poor thyme: always the bridesmaid, never the bride. It’s perhaps the herb I reach for most often – I rely on it to add flavour to stews, stocks, stuffings, pâtés and terrines, the bellies of baking fish – yet we seldom give it the starring role. It’s destined to work tirelessly in the kitchen, a culinary Cinderella, seldom given top billing like those flashy “finishing” herbs, parsley, basil, mint and coriander. But today it shall go to the ball. It’s thyme (sorry) for a change. I’m celebrating its clean, bracing pungency and putting it centre stage.
There are many different types of thyme, but the ones we use most often are common thyme, Thymus vulgaris, and lemon thyme, T. citrodius. I have a particular affection for the latter and use it almost as much as T. vulgaris; in fact, I’d maybe use it more if it wasn’t such a slow grower. It’s very good with fish, shellfish, lamb, chicken and veal, and even works well in breads and biscuits (see today’s recipe). It has a gentler flavour than old vulgaris, so I often add it at the end, in a final, finishing flourish, as well as at the beginning.
Thyme’s special charm is the extraordinary concentration of scent in those tiny but fleshy leaves which are ready to eke out a living in the meagrest of soils. Thyme grows wild all over the Mediterranean, pushing itself through the rocky earth and perfuming the air with its pungent aroma.
So when you grow it at home, try to replicate these conditions as closely as you can. Plant it in well-drained, poorish soil in the sunniest spot you can find to ensure the best flavour. It grows brilliantly in pots and will put up with all kinds of harsh treatment, apart from overwatering, for which it will not thank you. Pillage your pots often – the more you cut, the more it will throw up those fresh, fragrant young leaves that really are the most delicious. Without frequent cutting, it can become woody, so don’t hold back. The dainty flowers are a delicious addition to drinks and fruit salads, and look wonderful scattered over cakes. Once it has flowered, though, give it a good haircut to encourage new growth.
Thyme has found its way into kitchens all over the world, from the Med to Mexico, and into dishes as diverse as casseroles, chillies and chowders. Of course, it is an essential component of bouquet garni because it stands up to long, slow cooking, giving up its mellow flavour without overpowering the finished dish.
But it’s not all about stews and stocks. Rub some thyme leaves on the crackling of your pork joint. Add a sprig or two next time you’re frying onions into creamy softness. Scatter it into the roasting tin with the potatoes, other root veg, and squashes and pumpkins, too. When you’re frying mushrooms, add a few bruised thyme leaves along with the garlic, and finish with a tiny squeeze of lemon for perfect mushrooms on toast. You can sprinkle it, very finely chopped, into bread dough (especially pizza and focaccia) and even, lightly, into yorkshire pudding batter. Next time you make a tomato salad, use young and tender thyme leaves (and flowers, too) in place of the ubiquitous basil. And use today’s gremolata by beating some into softened butter to add a final, melting element of deliciousness to a juicy steak or lamb chop.
If you’re cooking this weekend and want something extra-special, then please, take your thyme.My favorite recipes are Lamb cutlets with thyme gremolata and the delicious Lemon thyme shortbread.You should try it !