Thyme

Thyme

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
3 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667678
Photographer
William Meppem

The heady fragrance of thyme wafts through the sun-warmed air above countless rocky hillsides around the Mediterranean and in the Middle East. But it is a hardy, tenacious little plant and grows just as well in cooler climates, even thriving as far north as Iceland!

Thyme is a well-known herb due to its inclusion in those dusty little bags of herbes de Provence, and it is also one of the three essential herbs in a bouquet garni, used to make stocks, soups and all kinds of slow-cooked savoury dishes in classical French cooking. It has a special affinity with rabbit – bunnies that have fed on wild thyme are said to be particularly delicious – as well as game birds such as quail, pigeon, guinea fowl and even partridge. Even simple lamb cutlets acquire a lovely savoury flavour when grilled with a few sprigs of thyme, or when brushed with a honey–thyme glaze. Interestingly, the magical alliance between honey and thyme was even remarked by Virgil – the bees which make the legendary Greek Hymetus honey have been gathering their nectar from tiny thyme flowers for centuries.

Fresh or dried, thyme is dearly loved in the Middle East for its lively savoury flavour. The fresh leaves are stripped from their stalks and scattered into salads and salad dressings. The dried leaves retain their intense flavour and are often combined with cheese dishes. Shankleish – golf-balls of chalky-dry yoghurt cheese – are often rolled in thyme with a little chilli and then marinated in olive oil.

In many Middle Eastern countries the most common use of thyme is in the aromatic mixture za’atar, which is eaten on a daily basis throughout Lebanon. ‘Za’atar’ is the Arabic word for both thyme the herb and the seasoning mix made with dried thyme, sour red sumac berries and sesame seeds. When we travelled through Lebanon a few years ago our favourite breakfast was mankoushi, a flat round bread rather like a pizza, thickly spread with za’atar and eaten hot from a wood-fired oven. The aroma of this bread fills the streets early in the morning, and is quite irresistible. At home we make our own instant version by mixing za’atar with a little olive oil to make a paste which is quite delicious spread on toast.

Selecting and storing thyme

There are many different varieties of thyme but the only two you are likely to find in the shops are common thyme and lemon thyme. They are quite different and should, therefore, be used differently. Lemon thyme really does have distinct lemony overtones, and works well with poultry, veal or baked fish dishes. Common thyme is spicier, with a strong savoury flavour, and is better suited for seasoning heavier dishes like rich stews, soups or even stuffings – either on its own or as part of a bouquet garni.

Thyme is a perennial, and is readily available all year round, either picked from your own herb patch, or in little twiggy bundles from greengrocers and most supermarkets. Fresh thyme is a hardy herb and will keep happily in the refrigerator for at least a week. Dried thyme lasts several months before losing its potency.

Using thyme

Carefully wash and dry the herb before you start on the fun task of stripping the tiny little leaves from thyme’s woody stalks. Then scatter them liberally over grills, toss them through salads or mix them into stuffings. Some resourceful people keep a little bunch of thyme to use as a handy brush for dousing olive oil and flavour directly onto grilling meat.

Some recipes specify dried herbs. Thyme dries particularly well, retaining much of its flavour for several months. Ideally you should hang your bunch upside down, in a dry airy place for 2–3 weeks, until it is completely dry.

To make the Lebanese mix za’atar you need to buy a bag of sumac and a bag of za’atar from a Middle Eastern grocer. Keep them separately, stored in an airtight container, until you want to make up the mix. It is best to make za’atar in fairly small quantities to ensure that the flavours stay fresh and zingy. The proportions are three of za’atar to one of sumac (start with a tablespoon measure). Combine the two loosely together and then drizzle in enough oil to make a loose paste. No, it doesn’t look very exciting – but just wait until you taste it!

Recipes in this Chapter

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