Thymus vulgaris, called vulgaris not because crude but because common – as common as the wordplays of which it is the patron and protector herb. By extension it is the patron herb of the names of bistros and catering companies: About Thyme, Thyme to Dine, Thyme 4 Pasta, Meal Thyme, Wild Thymes, Thyme to Indulge, Nosh Thyme… also an enormous chain of maternity shops.
The thyme of the seasonings is most often seen desiccated; you probably have a jar or bag of it in your kitchen. Its consistency is best described as needle dust. This rough thyme’s flavour, too, has an edge of dust in it, but mainly it’s about the average of sage and oregano. If someone near you tasted something and said “Wow, this is really… herbal,” you would probably expect it to have too much free thyme.
But that’s dried thyme. That thyme may seem out of joint if you know the fresh item, which brings so much more and other.
Pick up a little twig of it. Most of the thyme we don’t want; stroke your pinching fingertips down the stem to take off the tight little leaf clusters, and pluck off the soft tip. Take a bit of this fine thyme in your mouth and chew it with your incisors. You will feel instantly as though you have been on a hike in the mountains. You can see yourself standing in an alpine meadow, and as you inhale the cool, dry air you cough, and you reach into your pocket and pull out a lozenge and suck on it. Instantly you get a head of thyme. Fresh thyme, you see, has a curious vaguely mint-like flavour with a light burning sensation that makes your tongue suspect it might soon become numb. It is reminiscent of a mix of oregano and Vicks VapoRub, though it makes a much better seasoning (don’t ask).
If you do have a cough or sore throat, and you try a bit of real good thyme, it might even help. It may not be true that thyme heals all wounds, but it does have antiseptic properties – it contains thymol, which is no mere folk remedy. And along with treating laryngitis and coughs and helping digestion, thyme was thought by the ancients to be purifying and to protect from poison. You can also, supposedly, use a night thyme sleep aid to prevent nightmares.
Thyme is supposed to be good for many organs, though I don’t know whether it is good for the thymus. The thymus is a gland near the sternum that, in humans, disappears by adulthood; it plays a role in the development of the immune system. The thymus of calves is sometimes called sweetbread, which makes sense because it is neither bread nor sweet but the butchers want to sell it. I’ve cooked it once. My Larousse Gastronomique has dozens of recipes for it, and so there must surely be a way to keep it from being boring and gross, but I didn’t discover what.
That thymus is said with a “th” as in thigh, which is sensible since it comes from the Greek word θύμος (thumos). Our word thyme, on the other hand, comes from Latin thymum (notice that the botanical version has changed from neuter thymum to masculine thymus), said with “t” as we do because Latin doesn’t have a “th” sound. Latin in turn got it from Greek θύμον (thumon), but that soft “th” got dried to a “t” by its Latin retailers. The upsilon, as ever, was rendered in Latin with y, which is why we have thyme after θύμον. (If you’re lost, you can look in a dictionary and you will find it.)
Perhaps the th was dried by the smoke: it is thought that θύμον comes from θύειν thuein ‘burn sacrifice’. In their temples, the Greeks burned thyme to aid courage. In the Middle Ages in Europe, it was sometimes burned at funerals. I regret to inform you that no other European language has the same pun on thyme and time that English has, however, so there is no point in imagining that this had to do with thyme to burn, the end of thyme, and so on.
On the other hand, nearly all the European words for thyme are clearly related to each other: French thym, Italian timo, Spanish tomillo, Dutch tijm, German Thymian, Danish and Norwegian timian, Finnish timjami, Polish tymianek… Basque is an unsurprising exception, with ezkaia; Hungarian is also an exception, with kakukkfű, which means ‘cuckoo-grass’.
Perhaps because of its medicinal, sacramental, and folkloric use, and perhaps because of its frank aggression – it can be used to excess, and you don’t want too much thyme on your hams or in your stews – there are not so many ancient thyme recipes, though it has long been a part of a bouquet garni, that essential spice bundle for French sauces. Cooks in times past may also have just been short on thyme in general. But here is a recipe from a 1616 Danish Koge Bog (Cookbook) for a sausage:
Tag Kiødet aff Dalbagen/oc nogit aff Lungen oc Lefueren/hack dette smaat/skær saa Flesket i Terninger/oc blant der iblant/sla der i Løg/Peber/Timian/Meyran/røg det i en sacte Røg/oc heng den siden til side/at den icke faar formegen Røg.
One M. Forest has been kind enough to provide a translation:
Take the meat of the Dalbage [a cut of meat from the neck of a pig], and some of the lung and liver. Chop this finely, then cut the pork into dice and mix it in. Add onion, pepper, thyme, marjoram. Smoke it in a slow smoke and then hang it aside so it doesn’t get too much smoke.
In English folklore and poetry, thyme has from time to time been associated with chastity and virginity, and we may reasonably suspect that the association has less to do with things going up in smoke than with that grand old wordplay. Here’s from a song called “A Bunch of Thyme”:
Come all ye maidens young and fair
And you that are blooming in your prime
Always beware and keep your garden fair
Let no man steal away your thyme
Oh, but who can resist, in the spring, thyme?
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite overcanopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine.
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lulled in these flowers with dances and delight
—Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Had we but world enough, and thyme, this coyness, ladies, were no crime. But if thyme were money, and sage advice gold, I would make a mint.
And wordplay? O, blessed be the silly wordplay. It clears the throat and mind alike, however common it may be. And so we shall end our thyme together, with the play of words: a sprig of Verlaine – from his “Art poétique”:
Que ton vers soit la bonne aventure
Eparse au vent crispé du matin
Qui va fleurant la menthe et le thym…
Et tout le reste est littérature.
My English rendition:
Your verse should be what adventure brings
Strewn on the brisk, cross wind of dawn
That mint and thyme are flowing on…
And what’s left is literary things.