Ancient Egyptian Herb

Thyme is one of the oldest of all herbs, used in Egypt at the time of the pharaohs and in ancient Greece and Rome. It is a small perennial shrub indigenous to the Mediterranean, most notably the region that extends from southern Europe to North Africa. There are actually dozens of types of thyme, but many of them are purely ornamental. Common thyme, sometimes called garden thyme, is the kitchen herb of choice. Lemon thyme also has culinary uses (see below).

Thyme leaves are tiny, pointed, and green; they are very aromatic because they contain thymol, an important essential oil. Their fragrance is warming and spicy, with undertones of pine and citrusy, minty notes (thyme is a member of the mint family); the flavor is also intense and warming, with a faintly medicinal note. The leaves should be stripped from their woody stems before use. Because of the presence of thymol, thyme dries well, retaining much of its pungency (in fact, in arid climates, thyme tends to be at least already partially dried on the stem when it is harvested). The thyme that grows all over Provence and other regions is called serpolet in France. The herb known as za’atar in the Middle East is another type of wild thyme.

Thyme is one of the most common herbs in the kitchens of Europe and North America, as well as throughout the Middle East. It is an essential part of any bouquet garni, the classic French herb bundle that is used to season stocks, soups, and stews. It is also one of the ingredients in the blend known as herbes de Provence. It helps cut the richness of fatty foods such as duck or goose and pork; it is also good with chicken. Thyme complements most vegetables, particularly tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, and root vegetables, and it is an important seasoning in many dried bean dishes.

Lemon thyme deserves to be more well-known than it is. It is less intense than garden thyme, but it has a lovely citrus aroma and flavor. Lemon thyme is particularly suited to desserts such as poached fruit, and it can be used in scones and shortbread. On the savory side, lemon thyme is, not surprisingly, good with fish and shellfish, as well as with chicken.