There can be no substitute for the real thing, no compromising on quality. Stating the obvious, you might say, but is it really? Have you ever eaten a chicken pie that lists no chicken among its ingredients, or stared in dumbfounded amazement at the label on a bottle of maple syrup that proclaims earnestly that the contents are “flavoured with natural maple syrup”. No kidding! Like, what else is supposed to be in there?
Ever since my own chicken-pie episode I’ve been on a private little crusade for truth and transparency, going to the source, tracing things to their origins: fruit to its grower, honey to the hive that produced it, venison to its hunter and the forest it came from. It’s been an intensely gratifying quest—I’ve been places, learnt things, met people. I’ve seen how a walnut-shelling machine works and how haloumi cheese is made. I’ve got to chat with the woman who roasts my coffee. Always there has been the unexpected, a surprise for the senses, as if the moment I’ve said, “No more fakes,” the good and real things have begun to seek me out. And sometimes, like straight out of J.K. Rowling, a doorway has appeared into a world that only moments before I hadn’t known existed.
This happened to me just recently. A letter arrived white envelope, neatly handwritten address, a short note inside. But it wasn’t the words that made the most impact. Sellotaped to the note was a single sprig of wild thyme, which turned the little package into a veritable letter bomb for the nose. It exploded the moment I opened it, drilling my nostrils with a fragrance that had the intensity of undiluted horse radish. The note had come from Alexandra, from an accomplice on one of my past magazine assignments, and, in a nutshell, it said, “Thyme is out!” A few days later I was in my camper and heading for Central Otago, tracing the route back to the note’s sender.
When Helena Heydelaar arrived in Central Otago in 1986, it was November, and the wild thyme was in full bloom, like a thin purple-white haze rising from the sunbaked earth. The plant covered the hills with a dry but surprisingly woolly fleece that crunched underfoot, each step an explosion of aroma like a puff of powdered perfume. Helena, who had just quit her job as a location and activities scout for a European cruise-ship company, was fascinated by the phenomenon.
“It was as beautiful as the blossoming heather in Scotland, and the people there make a lot of fuss about it,” she told me. “They have celebrations and festivities, and walks through the flowering heather were always a highlight of our Scottish cruises, one of my best finds as a scout.”
In Alexandra, however, no one seemed to care about thyme, in flower or otherwise. It was a weed worth nothing more than its dose of Roundup. So when Helena suggested a festival with thyme for a theme, it was as if she was proposing to celebrate the blossoming of gorse or broom. However, like any committed visionary, she persevered, and in the spring of 1991 came the first Alexandra Thyme Festival, an innovative potpourri of art, cooking and celebration of everything thyme and Otago.
The event has grown more popular each year since, its organisers taking delight in outdoing each other in puns, to which the word “thyme” lends itself, from A Brief History of Thyme and Thymes Gone By to A Thyme to Celebrate and Shutter Thyme, a workshop on plant photography. Simultaneously, attitudes towards the plant have changed. A seminar on “cooking with weeds” has been a regular sellout, while thyme potplants for sale have appeared, a kind of “spread-the-good-weed” campaign.
Thyme was introduced to Otago by Jean Desire Feraud, a French goldminer affectionately known as “the Old Fraud”, who, in the 1860s, struck good colour near Alexandra, in the place still called French Point. He became the mayor of Clyde and was one of the area’s original orchardists. He was Otago’s first winemaker, although almost a century-and-a-half would pass before his vision of Nouvelle Provence came to be fully appreciated. On his farm, Monte Cristo, near Clyde, Feraud planted thyme along with sage and marjoram. Thyme escaped from his garden and, unpalatable to both sheep and rabbits, spread like a slow wildfire, smouldering in hues of lilac and mauve each subsequent Otago summer. Now, reaching out along the converging valleys of the Clutha, Manuherikia and Kawarau Rivers, the herb covers an estimated 2000 ha of sun-browned and rocky highlands.
Driving down the Clutha and into thyme country I was armed with The English Physician, by the illustrious Nicholas Culpeper, a 17th-century London apothecary. The book, written in elegant Shakespearean language, has been the bible for herbal-remedy enthusiasts ever since its first publication, in 1653. Last year my Airedale puppy badly cut her paw, and a friend suggested a remedy straight out of Culpeper. From a nearby ditch, which had escaped the onslaught of lawnmowers, she fetched a few leaves of a weed called plantain and pounded them into a pulp, which she then bandaged to the dog’s wound. The next day the cut had almost completely healed. Whether this was a result of an Airedale’s natural toughness or the workings of the plant, I’m not sure, but I was intrigued, and Culpeper and I have become tentative friends.
In my camper I also had A Guide to the Identifi cation of New Zealand Common Weeds, though this in the end would prove superfluous. When the thyme is out in Central Otago, there’s no mistaking it. As you look around there seems to be nothing else to take in. There are over a hundred varieties of thyme, members of Lamiaceae, the mint family native to Europe. The variety that has taken root in Otago is common, or garden, thyme (Thymus vulgaris), a stout and fibrous perennial noted for its dislike of moisture. The plant prefers sandy, dry soils and plenty of sun, and its seeds retain their germinating power for up to three years, thus weathering the harshest of droughts. Other notable varieties are lemon, orange, silver and caraway thyme, but these, for now at least, remain confined to gardens.
What can you do with such a weed? A lot, it appears, and then some more. It may be called vulgaris but common thyme is anything but ignoble. The early Egyptians used it in embalming, while the ancient Greeks bathed in thyme infusions and burnt dried thyme as incense in their temples. The Romans fumigated their rooms with it, for, as Pliny wrote, when burnt, thyme puts to fl ight all venomous creatures. Before and during Culpeper’s era, thyme was a symbol of bravery and vitality, and, in the age of chivalry, a lady would embroider a ribbon with a bee hovering over a sprig of thyme as a favour for her knight of choice.
The bee-and-thyme motif has lasted through the ages, not just because of its aesthetic and romantic appeal but also because the result of the association is, well, the sweetest thing—the most luscious and pungently aromatic honey bees can make. So intense is the flavour of T. vulgaris honey that as far back as ancient Greece the words for sweetness and thyme were indissolubly linked. And, if such a thing were possible, it appears that the Hellenic honey of old was a lightweight when compared with that made in central Otago.
At Earnscleugh, beside the Clutha, I met Ernest Adamson, a jovial and sprightly man whose family has been producing honey in Otago more or less since the province’s inception, during the post-goldrush years of the 1870s. Today Ernest is one of a dozen Otago beekeepers specialising in thyme honey and the only one producing an organic variety. His movable estate consists of around 900 hives and a cohort of some 35 million bees.
In Europe, he told me, New Zealand thyme honey sells well and is considered superior to others—Spanish, French and Greek—because of its sweeter, fresher and more distinct taste. At home, however, its flavour is generally considered almost too intense, so thyme honey is traditionally blended with clover honey. The latter provides the volume, the former a heady zing.
As I watched Ernest tasting the coming crop, crooking his index finger into a frame of beeswax, lapping up the golden-brown syrup with the grin of a kid with his hand in the cookie jar, I could see why he considers his job, and the weed called thyme, as sweet as it gets. As he sees it, the more vulgaris, the better. There can never be too much of such a good thing.
You are probably familiar with the taste of thyme, for it is a key ingredient of many anti-cough syrups and cold-throat bonbons. Culpeper noted that thyme was “a noble strengthener of the lungs, as notable a one as grows, nor is there a better remedy growing for whooping cough. It purgeth the body of phlegm and is an excellent remedy for shortness of breath. It is so harmless you need not fear the use of it.” He also suggested thyme for de-worming and for combating nightmares.
The use of thyme was recorded as far back as 3000 BC,when it was considered a soothing wound dressing. During the Middle Ages it was grown in monastery gardens in Italy, Spain and southern France, and made into cough remedies, digestive aids and potions for use against intestinal parasites. Today, thyme extracts are used in deodorants and local anaesthetics, and to medicate the gauze and wool of surgical dressings, being a potent germicide and lessening these materials’ irritancy to wounds. Thyme has also proved itself against bronchitis, emphysema, colds and fl u, and its anti-fungal properties have made it successful in the treatment of athlete’s foot. Culpeper even went as far as to suggest that an infusion of thyme was able to relieve “the headaches occasioned by inebriation”.
The main active ingredient responsible for thyme’s medicinal properties is thymol, found in an essential oil that is extracted through steam distillation of the plant’s fresh leaves and fl owering tops. Apart from its antiseptic and disinfectant properties, thymol is a useful agent for controlling the varroa mite in bee hives over the warmer months of the year. It is well-tolerated by bees but toxic to the mites. A kilogram of fresh T. vulgaris yields about 10 ml of essential oil, and harvesting wild thyme is back-breaking work. While most of today’s market demands are met by Spain and France, New Zealand plays a small but significant part in the story of thyme.
From the 1930s to the 1970s, the Briar Herb Company, at Clyde, processed some 18,000 kg of thyme a year, as well as a quantity of sage, mint and rose hips. Each year, as the plant’s oil content peaked—just before flowering—the company became a buying post for all the thyme cut and brought in, paying around four cents per kg of green herb. Thyme-harvesting picnics were popular among the locals, the high point of a “working day off” for many families. In the 1970s, the Briar Herb Company shut down and its premises later became a museum, but Otago thyme as an enterprise continued.
Because harvesting wild-growing thyme is slow, hard work, not unlike cutting wheat with a sickle, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) experimented with cultivation and mechanised processing on the 24 ha Redbank Station, in the Earnscleugh valley. Other herbs were trialled, too. In April 2000, Sam Neill’s Two Paddocks estate bought Redbank Station, and with it its essential-oils distillery. So far the still has produced mainly lavender oil, but the estate’s business manager, Mark Field, has plans for thyme oil as well.
“We haven’t got any thyme planted so we’ll have to start the way of the Briar Herb Company, by harvesting the wild crop,” he told me. “Our lavender oil has proved a modest success [among other things, it makes an excellent heavy-duty insect repellent] so there’s no reason why thyme shouldn’t do equally well.”
No reason, indeed. Traditionally, thyme and lavender have been considered siblings. Thyme is “a faithful companion of the lavender,” wrote Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, a French chemist and the father of modern aromatherapy. “It lives with it in perfect sympathy and partakes alike of its . . .fortune.”
Make what you will of thyme’s “miracle weed” properties, but there doubt of its value in the kitchen. Thyme’s piquant lemony flavour an essential ingredient of such staple seasonings as bouquet garni mix known as herbes de Provence (thyme, rosemary, lavender and savory, with optional basil and fennel). Thyme is used heavily in Mediterranean cuisine to flavour meats, soups and stews, as well as fish and dishes, and you will find it in such exotic spice blends as Jordanian Egyptian dukkah.
Creole-style cooking is also famous for its extensive use of thyme, particularly when it comes to the barbecue technique called blackening, whereby meat or fish fillets are dipped in molten butter, coated with a spice mix, then quickly fried at high temperature. (Please note, that’s blackening, not charring.)
Thyme needs to be added early in cooking, as it takes a while for its oils to be released, but if a recipe starts with something like “Bruise fresh sprigs of thyme and tarragon, and combine with red wine and extra virgin olive oil…”, you know you’re on to a good thing.
It is another of thyme’s peculiarities that, unlike the many herbs which lose their flavour when dried—a result of their aromatic components evaporating or oxidising—thyme doubles or even triples in fragrance and spiciness when dehydrated. One possible explanation of this is that, during drying, the structures in the plant tissue collapse, resulting in increased mobility of the essential oil and, consequently, the release of more molecules into the atmosphere. It’s like having two herbs for the price of one. Fresh thyme is not only less intense than dry, but also has a softer, not-so-smoky flavour—perfect for, say, Mediterranean vegetables. Dried thyme, on the other hand, has a domineering smokiness—a complement to spicy foods—and is as important to a good barbie as the fuel that fires it.
I learnt all this during the 2005 Alexandra Thyme Festival, a nine-day event in mid-November, while browsing casually among its many offerings. There were workshops on composting and worm-farming, on growing and using herbs, and on the health-enhancing properties and uses of weeds. There were thyme-related events, too, that I missed, and things I didn’t learn about the noble weed, but I’m pleased to have opened another doorway to the source of things.
I’m not sure if Helena Heydelaar’s vision of Central Otago as a kind of antipodean Provence or Tuscany will come to fruition, but perhaps it doesn’t need to. There is an intensity to this landscape and its fares that is distinctly its own, and satisfying enough in itself. As the vineyards spread and new olive groves and lavender fields spring up, Helena is quietly collecting material for a future culinary bestseller, Cooking with Thyme, and before leaving I selected one of the recipes. Heading back home, I acquired two rabbits and a bottle of local wine, while in the camper I already had enough thyme to make a haystack. Rabbit in thyme, served with Pinot Gris—all local and true. Surely the taste of Otago, a feast to make “the Old Fraud” proud.