A Brief History of Thyme
(With apologies to Stephen Hawking...)
Merciless emperors and embattled soldiers, knights in shining armor and woodland fairies, the birth of a Savior and the scourge of the Black Plague—thyme, for such a delicate looking plant, you certainly have a long storied history.
Where Did Thyme Come From?
It is thought that the ancient Sumerians were the first to grow thyme, perhaps as long as 5,000 years ago. They recognized its minty-clove aroma as a hint to its potential for medicinal purposes. Thus began the use of thyme as an antiseptic and disinfectant.
The Sumerians were an ancient civilization in the southern portion of land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, just north of the present-day Persian Gulf.
Thyme’s use as a curative was continued by the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The Greeks used sprigs of thyme as a preservative for fruit and wine, and they drank tinctures of thyme to ward off nightmares. They revered thyme as a symbol of courage and burned bundles of it as incense, the aroma purported to imbue soldiers with a spirit of fearlessness and endurance.
This association of thyme and courage continued in the Middle Ages. In the days of knights, beleaguered castles and chivalry, fair maidens would embroider scarves with sprays of thyme—the scarves to be worn by their true loves as they entered into battle.
The Romans also believed in the power of thyme to give courage to their soldiers. And they believed that the scent of burning thyme would repel scorpions.
“Thyme . . . puts to flight all venomous creatures.”
— Pliny the Elder
In the Roman era, it was also thought that ingesting thyme would protect one from poison. (I think we can assume that large beds of thyme were well-tended in the gardens of the emperor.) Thyme was even tossed into the bathwater as an added safeguard.
And it was the Romans who introduced thyme to England, where it thrived and still grows today.
And Then Things Got a Little Crazy
Fast-forward 1,300 years. When the Black Death struck, millions of people in Europe used thyme for protection and cure. Thyme was worn around the neck, burned to fill the air with its pungent smoke, applied as a poultice to festering blistered skin, and stuffed in the masks of attending physicians.
Leave it to the Victorians to take the mythology of thyme to a whole new level. They considered a patch of wild thyme in the woods to be indisputable evidence that fairies had danced on that very spot.
Perhaps we should blame it on Shakespeare. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, he wrote that Titania, the Queen of the Faeries, often went to "a bank whereon the wild thyme blows."
But the Victorians were not totally clueless. Long before the control of infections was fully understood, they were soaking bandages in thyme tea.
Remember the Sumerians?
Does thyme give one courage or prevent nightmares? Is it an antitoxin or evidence of fairy visits? Call me a cynic, but I really doubt it. However, thyme contains thymol, a naturally-occurring compound with strong antimicrobial properties. In other words, it fights germs and fungus. Listerine mouth wash, anti-fungal creams, and some toothpastes and topical preparation for acne contain thymol. Thymol is also available as an over-the-counter product, but the purpose of this article is not to promote or endorse the use of thymol for self-medication.
I would much rather cook with thyme.
What's In a Name?
There are many theories on the origin of this ancient herb’s name. Most agree that the Thyme is derived from thumos (Greek for smoke) and that makes perfect sense when you consider that thyme was used to perfume their homes and temples. However some historians think the name might have originated from fumus, Latin for fumigate (remember the Sumarians?)
Yet another theory comes from Tournefort (a French botanist) who says that thyme comes from “mind” because it was used for as a remedy for fainting.
Cooking With Thyme
Europeans did not use thyme solely to combat the plague or chase nightmares. They also recognized it as a valuable seasoning for foods. Historians tell us that monasteries maintained enviable herbal gardens. Because they were secluded and self-sufficient, the monks who lived there had to rely on their own resources when caring for their sick and injured, and they raised their own food.
Not the Star of the Show
Thyme is not meant to be the star of the show. As a member of the mint family it might overwhelm in a solo performance. But, when paired with onion, garlic, parsley, or other herbs, it lends a subtle warmth and complexity to dishes that would otherwise have just a single note. A few leaves added at the last minute of cooking lend an aromatic undertone that brings all other flavors into sharper focus.
Little Bits of Trivia
- According to legend, the Christ child’s manger bed was filled with hay and thyme.
- Thyme grew in Egypt where it was used in the mummification process.
- In the Middle Ages, thyme was placed beneath one's pillow to aid sleep and ward off nightmares.
- In the 18th century, it was recommended as a cure for hangovers.
How to Grow and Harvest Thyme
Lemon Thyme Risotto
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil
- 1/2 cup minced onion
- 1/2 cup finely diced celery
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 2 thyme sprigs or lemon thyme sprigs, leaves removed
- 3/4 cup dry white wine
- 1 cup Arborio rice
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 3-4 cups chicken, vegetable, or mushroom broth, heated to a simmer
- 1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
- 1/4 cup mascarpone cheese
- Juice and zest of 1/2 lemon
- In a large frying pan melt 1 tablespoon butter with olive oil over medium heat. Add onion, celery, and garlic and cook until onion is softened, about 2 minutes. Stir in thyme.
- Add 1/4 cup of the wine and cook until wine is absorbed. Remove from heat and cover to keep warm.
- Melt remaining 1 tablespoon butter in a large heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add rice, pepper, and remaining 1/2 cup white wine. Stir to ensure that rice does not clump together and cook until wine is absorbed. Add 1 cup broth; reduce heat to low, and stir until broth is almost absorbed. Continue to add broth, 1/2 cup at a time and stirring until rice is creamy and tender but still firm in center. This should take about 15 to 18 minutes.
- Stir in onion/thyme mixture. Remove from heat and stir in cheeses, lemon juice, and lemon zest.
Roasted Radishes With Thyme
- 1 bunch (about 1 pound) assorted small radishes
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter, melted
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
- Wash the radishes. Cut off the root ends and the tops, leaving about 1/2 inch of the stem. Dry and then transfer to a large bowl with the thyme, olive oil, and melted butter. Toss to combine. Place in a shallow baking dish then sprinkle with sea salt and a few grinds of pepper.
- Bake in preheated oven 10-15 minutes.
Caramelized Onion Tart
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 pound yellow onions, thinly sliced
- 1 pound red onions, thinly sliced
- 1/2 pound Cipollini, vertically sliced in 1/4 inch slices
- 2 tablespoons fresh thyme, minced
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 of a 14-oz. package refrigerated pie dough
- 1/4 cup Feta cheese, crumbled
- 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, shredded
- 1/4 cup Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
- 1 large egg, beaten
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
- Peel the onions. Using a mandolin or the slicing blade of a food processor, thinly slice the yellow and red onions. Slice the Cipollini with a sharp knife. Line a baking sheet with paper towels; place the onions on the paper towels, and allow to sit for about 10 minutes to remove some of the excess moisture. (Did you know that onions are 89 percent water?)
- Heat the oil and butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Place the onions, thyme, salt, and pepper in the pan and cook, stirring occasionally about 20 minutes or until the onions are softened and begin to turn golden brown. Don't hurry the process by turning up the heat--the onions will burn and taste bitter. You want them to caramelize.
- Line a 10-inch tart pan with the pie dough.
- Sprinkle feta cheese on the pastry, followed by the parmesan and gorgonzola cheeses. Top with the onion mixture. Bake at 425° for 25 minutes or until golden. Cool for 10 minutes.
Roasted Lemon Thyme Chicken
The secret to this flavorful, juicy roast chicken with lemon is a dry brine. The bird is rubbed with salt and sits overnight in the fridge. The next day, it’s rinsed, lemon slices are slid under its skin, and the whole thing is roasted. A simple pan gravy knocks this over the top. This recipe is paleo-friendly, gluten-free, dairy-free, and perfect for a weekend dinner.
© 2015 Linda Lum