Finding Thyme growing in profusion is always a thrill – it is only because of the warm seawater currents of the Gulf Stream that it survives the west coast winters at all. I suspect there is none at equivalent latitudes on the Scottish or Norwegian North Sea shores.
Wild thyme (Thymus serpyllum), or serpolet, is common in dry grasslands, heaths, dunes, screes and rocky ground throughout the British Isles. It can often be found in profusion on the many remote islands of Mull, Ulva and the Treshnish Isles where south facing well-drained sandy banks of short grazed grass set back from the shore dunes often provides a perfect habitat.
Ulva is beautiful, tranquil and, unlike neighbouring Iona, is low-key. If visitors venture beyond the amazing creamy coffees and sticky buns served at the The Boathouse next to the Ulva Ferry from Mull they find a bounty of wild foods to forage for. Treshnish and Staffa are even more remote – best accessed by sea kayak they are uninhabited and completely wild.
Beaten to it
In areas protected from grazing the herb can flower in a carpet of abundant pinkish-mauve flower heads clumps in June and July when it is best picked – at its most fragrant.
Often deer, wild goats and sheep have spotted it first and, dizzy with its perfume, have grazed it low to the ground – it can be necessary to get on one’s hands and knees to find it in shorter grazed grasses.
Wild thyme is perhaps my favourite herb and, although it does not have such an intense flavour as common thyme (or garden thyme), Thymus vulgaris should be used in lavish quantities. Its mild flavour is an excellent partner with roasting meats and liver and it is also a wonderful addition to a simple herb omelette. Most mushroom dishes benefit from a few sprigs, as do salad dressings and vinegar. It is also a useful herb making a delicious thyme tea, which is good for colds and throats.
Wild thyme is a delicate plant only offering its leaves for a few months of the year. However it dries very well without loss of flavour so a good way of preserving thyme is by making bouquet garni for winter stews. All that’s required is a few good leafy sprigs of thyme, parsley, bay leaves and a few peppercorns placed in a 10cm square of muslin, the muslin corners are pulled up and the bundle tied with a cotton thread. The thread should be long enough to hang outside the stew pot so that the bouquet can be removed easily before serving.
Indeed thyme has played an important role through history. The Egyptians used its oil to embalm the Pharaohs, Greeks soldiers would place a sprig under their helmets (the name originates from the Greek for valour) and Roman soldiers, in keeping with tradition, would bathe in steaming water infused with thyme before going into battle whilst English Ladies embroidered thyme emblems on their knights’ handkerchiefs.
Although Hebridean seas can be a challenge, I have not heard of West coast fishermen bathing in thyme before setting off to catch their scampi.
Health and Safety
Soak and wash the thyme thoroughly as much sand and grit will inadvertently be collected during its picking. Great care must be taken as the plant is easily uprooted. Always ask land owner’s permission. Don’t fall of cliffs whilst collecting. Never argue with rutting stags – there’s always enough to go around.