An important and ancient culinary herb that has been used for a multitude of cooking and medicinal purposes for thousands of years.
There are over 100 varieties of thyme, most of which are purely ornamental. The two most important varieties of thyme in the kitchen are common or garden thyme and lemon thyme.
Common thyme Thymus vulgaris is a small perennial shrub that grows to a height of 30 cm (12 in). It has erect woody stems that contain pairs of tiny deep green to grey leaves, reaching only 5 mm in length. The shrub bears small and attractive pinkish flowers. Common thyme has large quantities of the essential oil, thymol, which contributes to the herb's pungently savoury aroma and flavour.
Lemon thyme T. citriodorus is a smaller shrub than the common variety, with slightly larger green leaves that can have a yellow edge. Due to its smaller amount of thymol, lemon thyme lacks the pungency of common thyme. The herb makes up for this with its delightful citrus aroma and flavour. Lemon thyme is a hybrid of common thyme and wild thyme T. serpyllum
The herb is native to Mediterranean regions, Southern Europe and Northern Africa. Thyme has a long history. It was used by the ancient Egyptians in embalming and was known to the classical Greeks as a fumigant. Indeed, the name is a derivative of the Greek thymon, meaning, "to fumigate"
In the kitchen, thyme compliments many soups, sauces, braises and casseroles. It is an essential flavouring in classical French stocks, such as chicken and veal, in the form of bouquet garni, a herb bundle of thyme, parsley, bay and peppercorns. Common thyme partners a whole range of red meat dishes, as well as many vegetables, particularly potatoes, carrots and tomatoes. Lemon thyme marries well to seafood, poultry and vegetable dishes that require a shorter cooking time.
Both varieties of thyme should be fairly easy to find fresh for sale at the green grocer. Keep thyme loosely wrapped in kitchen paper, in the refrigerator. Cling film will cause thyme to sweat and go black. If you can find pots of thyme for sale in a nursery, the plant is extremely easy to tend. It is perfect for the forgetful gardener, like myself.
Common thyme dries quite well, simply leave a bundle of thyme uncovered and at room temperature for one week, or buy ready dried from a reputable spice dealer. As with all herbs that dry well, thyme can sustain extended cooking periods. Lemon thyme relies more on its delicate citrus flavour, so should be purchased fresh if possible and added towards the end of cooking, so as to capture its zesty flavour.