Thyme is one of the most popular herbs and has wide use in cooking and traditional medicine.
First, the medical virtues of the plant were discovered and appreciated. Later after it was used as a herb in cooking and seasoning.
Origin, Legends and Facts
Thyme has been used to flavor food for over 2,000 years, being native to the European shores of the Mediterranean.
Thyme’s reputation as a healing and protecting plant was formed thousands of years ago. In Roman times, it was said that if you eat thyme before or during a meal you are protected from poisoning. For obvious reasons, the plant has become one of kings’ favorite.
The plant was also associated with bravery, courage and power in ancient times. Roman soldiers swapped thyme twigs as a sign of respect. The Greeks and Romans were burning bundles of thyme to purify their temples and homes and to invoke the spirit of courage in those who inhaled the scent.
It is believed that the Romans brought thyme in England in the time of Caesar and it became a very popular herb, used in cooking and for medicinal purposes.
The association with bravery and courage lasted during Middle Ages, too. Thyme was a traditional gift offered to men who left for battle. Most of the soldiers took it as a scented amulet and kept it in their pocket or saddlebag. Some preferred to hang it to clothes or armor as a badge of honor.
Victorians considered that a forest patch of wild thyme was a clear and indisputable sign that fairies have danced all night there. Generations of girls were resting in thyme plots hoping to see the fairies of the forest tribe.
The Saxons called it “savory” due to its spicy, pungent taste. According to some sources, the plant would not have been cultivated until the ninth century.
It seems that the Italians were among the first who cultivated thyme for cooking. It is still widely used in their cuisine, making excellent company with green beans and lentils.
Winter thyme bushes formed hedges and mazes, widely popular in Tudor gardens.
In California, many people have heard of Yerba Buena (good grass), the first name of San Francisco. Few know that “good grass” is a variety of savory: Satureja douglasii. This perennial herb has been used by the first inhabitants of the Pacific coast. It was prepared as a tea to cure a variety of diseases, for which it was called “good grass”.
There are about 30 varieties of thyme. The ones below are the most used:
Common thyme (Thymus vulgaris ) has longer leaves with twisted edges on the underside and slightly bitter smell. It spontaneously grows in the Mediterranean area.
Savory (Satureja hortensis) has oval leaves with straight edges. It resembles common thyme, but it doesn’t grow so tall.
Wild thyme (Thymus serpyllum) grows especially in mountainous, arid areas, rocky or sandy soils. It needs sun, so it prefers alpine pastures. It is spread all over Europe and used everywhere both in gastronomy as well as in traditional folk medicine and cosmetics.
When the Black Death struck in late 1340, millions of people have turned to thyme for comfort and protection. Many medicinal mixtures of that time (from florets held on neck to poultices applied directly to the blistered plague) included the plant as main ingredient. Although there was little research on these remedies back then, now we know that one of the chemical components of thyme (thymol) is a powerful antiseptic.
The famous seventeenth century herbalist Nicholas Culpepper wrote that thyme is valuable for its qualities of “heating, drying and carminative action, removing air from the stomach and intestines and is good against asthma and other chest diseases.” It was regarded as a factor regulating menstruation and as a tonic for the reproductive system. Culpepper said, “is recommended for women to keep it under clothing and smell it often.” He also recommends thyme for treating deafness.
Nowadays, thyme may be used in case of dyspepsia, biliary dyskinesia, intestinal worms, wounds, rheumatism, gout, seborrhea . Also the plant helps to treat digestive problems such as aerophagia, persistent flatulence, sluggish digestion and poor bile flow and to relieve cough, common cold and asthma.
Studies have shown that thyme essential oil is antiseptic, so it is often recommended for minor cuts and wounds, for bites and insect stings. The plant is sometimes prescribed to treat gum disease.
Thyme, regardless of the variety, is excellent for flavoring, seasoning and preserving foods. It is commonly used with legumes (such as beans, peas, lentils), cabbage or venison. The herb is customary in the preparation of pork sausages and meat. It combines well with beef, chicken and fish also.
In mountain areas the wild thyme is used for a flavored marinade that goes well with pork or beef roasts.
It enhances the taste of vegetable salads, like the baked beet salad flavored with thyme and crushed cumin.
Fresh thyme can be paired with eggs, tomato salad or cheese.
It may also be used to flavor home liqueurs.
Thyme is one of Europe’s favorite herb because of its strong flavor and versatility. Therefore, it should be found in everyone’s kitchen.