Hungry History

A Brief History of Thyme

By Beth Dunn

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For thousands of years, thyme has been a superstar of the herb garden. As an antidote for poison, a plague preventative, a symbol of bravery in battle and a stalwart companion to the grave, thyme has a far more storied past than you’d think if you were walking past it in the supermarket today.

Thyme’s reputation as a healer and protector goes back thousands of years. In the Roman era, it was widely held that eating thyme either before or during a meal would protect you from poison. For obvious reasons, this made the herb a particular favorite of the emperors. It was even said that a bath in warm water liberally dosed with thyme could stop the effects of poison after it was inadvertently consumed.

Thyme was also associated with courage, bravery and strength in ancient times. Roman soldiers exchanged sprigs of thyme as a sign of respect. Greeks and Romans burned bundles of thyme to purify their temples and homes, and to evoke a spirit of courage in those who inhaled it.

The association with courage and bravery persisted into the Middle Ages. Thyme was a traditional gift offered to men going into battle. Most soldiers would just cram these fragrant charms into their pockets or purses, but some were known to attach thyme to their clothing or armor as a visible badge of honor. When worn into battle, thyme might serve double duty: used as an embalming herb since the time of the Egyptians, it was thought to be a powerful aid to those making their passage into the next life.

When the Black Death struck in the late 1340s, millions of people turned to thyme for relief and protection. Many of the day’s medicinal concoctions—from posies worn about the neck to poultices applied directly to plague-blistered skin—included the herb as a major ingredient. Though there was little science to these remedies, one of the chemical compounds found in thyme is a powerful antiseptic. Known as thymol, it’s still widely used today in mouthwash, hand sanitizer and acne medication.

The Victorians placed their own fanciful spin on the mystical properties of thyme. They considered a patch of wild thyme in the woods to be a clear and incontrovertible sign that fairies had recently danced the night away on that very spot. Generations of little girls camped out near remote little plots of creeping thyme, hoping to catch a glimpse of a tribe of woodland fairies. But the Victorians also had more prosaic uses for thyme. Well before the mechanics of infection were fully understood, 19th-century nurses were bathing bandages in a dilution of thyme in water.

All along, of course, thyme remained one of Europe’s favorite cooking herbs (along with the ever-popular rosemary and sage). Monasteries, which served for hundreds of years as the keepers of medicinal knowledge as well as the art of keeping a good kitchen garden, made frequent use of thyme in their breads, soups and roasts. In the days before refrigeration and food safety laws, including thyme in recipes gave you at least some protection against spoiled meat and foodborne disease.

Now that you’ve heard the tale of thyme, celebrate the herb’s rich history in your own kitchen. The following is adapted from an old Benedictine recipe for mushroom-thyme soup.

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MUSHROOM-THYME SOUP

Servings: 4

1 clove garlic, minced
2 medium shallots, finely chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
8 ounces cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced
4 ouces shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and caps thinly sliced
2 tablespoons fresh thyme, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh sage, finely chopped
6 cups vegetable stock
Salt
Pepper

Sauté the garlic and shallot in the olive oil over low heat until the shallots are translucent. Add the mushrooms, thyme and sage, and stir together over low heat for about 1 minute. Add the vegetable stock. Bring to a rolling boil and then reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 15 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Categories: Black Death, Herbs, Medicine, Middle Ages