Monday, June 10, 2013


Once upon a thyme… 

 Snippets of basil, parsley and thyme filling jars were a thing of my childhood. Dried herbs of the common kind, miniscule cinders of deep forest green, sage and ashy moss, mysterious dust, heady with the scent of the earth and summer barbecues. Pull open the Lazy Susan, always that sharp squeak, the clattering of bottles of vanilla and cinnamon, canisters of sugar and flour, packets of tea and raisins, and search through the familiar little jars, each with its own green top. Push aside the dried basil and dried parsley and reach for the thyme. 

 A dusting of thyme on steak tossed on the grill, a pinch thrown into beef stew, stirred into red sauce. Flecks of thyme showing up against the pale of bread stuffing, the gold of omelet, hidden among the beans, green on green. 

 Fresh herbs were an expensive luxury, rarely seen, fairly unknown. 

 Moving through life, girlhood to adulthood, always passionately cooking, fresh thyme did not replace dried until strolls through French markets revealed a bounty of leafy greens, luxurious bouquets of parsley, basil and sage and exotic coriander, oregano and dill, fresh mint redolent of Morocco. And thyme. Hugging a single snippet of laurel. 

 Bouquet garnis.


Living on borrowed thyme…

 The house was concealed among the corn stalks and wild brush on the outskirts of Milan, a large, rambling thing built from bits and pieces of old luxury Ocean Liners. Dark oak flooring and paneling gave a warm glow to our rented home, muted white frosted panes etched Ladies’ Salon and Dames pushed inwards to reveal curiously shaped rooms. A large galley kitchen was our home-within-a-home, warm and comforting with her prickly stone walls, imposingly heavy marble-topped table large enough for a fleet of sailors, a stone bread oven nestled in the corner. The livingroom walls were lined with French windows that we would throw open all spring and summer long to welcome in the cool breeze and the warm sun. The yard spread out before us, a large golden field, stalks of weed and reeds waving gracefully in the wind, a private cove surrounded by woods where the boys and their dog could romp freely, often under the watchful – and amused – eye of Ettore, our old Italian neighbor and owner of this elegant pile and adopted grandfather – nonno – of our sons.

 The yard was a wonderland for a home cook such as I, filled as it was with herbs and fruit trees. And just outside the French windows were savory plants, a huge puff of a rosemary bush and several small tufts of thyme. I spent many a warm afternoon, the sun on my back, plucking and gathering branches of each which would be tossed into pots of simmering red sauce; leaves pulled off, branch pinched between forefinger and thumb, fingers sliding upwards, tiny leaves flitting off, scattering across the cutting board, chopped and stirred into risotto.

Biding one’s thyme…

Are you going to Scarborough Fair? Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.
Remember me to one who lives there, she once was a true love of mine.


Thyme is of the essence…

 Staples, my French husband loves to say. We must go shop and stock up on staples. Flour, sugar (granulated and cubes), dried pasta and rice. Milk. Juice. Paper towels (dirty dog). Oh, mustard, mayo, tomato paste what else do we need? And a trip to the market for onions, a head of garlic (une tĂȘte!), primary ingredients, just what we always need on hand for pasta sauce, stews, really almost anything! And thyme. Thyme and bay or is it laurel? Thyme with its tiny pale leaves the color of sage. It dries so perfectly, lasts forever. Toss it into ratatouille, to garnish a vegetable quiche, scent a pot au feu, s’il te plait. Anything you choose. So very French. Un bouquet de thym.

 Tiny pinpoints like little pale bugs flecked across the countertop, unavoidable residue. Fragrant fragments of a much-used herb, bunches of dried thyme bundled together with bits of string stuck in an old dusty-gray butter pot like flowers for the cook. Pull out a branch or three to add to the soup, the stew, roll in a dough and what escapes but more little leaves falling like glitter, bits of stalks like crude needles scattered across tabletop, stove, floor.

No thyme like the present…

 Son arrives, out of breath yet glowing with pleasure and self-satisfaction, trailing dirt and leaves across the floor. A bright, warm Mother’s Day, the kitchen window, open to capture the breeze, the pale light filtering lazily into the room as I cook. Beaming son, a peck on the cheek and newspapers are spread across the wood under our feet. Tiny turquoise garden tools, trowel, claw and spade are pulled in from the window ledge as handfuls of rich dark earth are scooped up and pushed into terra cotta planters, empty since our old house with a yard. Dirt scatters as son squats over his project, lifting young plants, basil, chives, mint and the accustomed, familiar rosemary and thyme.

 His hands, no longer the hands of a boy, strangely more and more like my brother’s hands, long tapered fingers, an artist’s movements, a man’s hands, place each green plant in its place, the rosemary and its constant partner thyme side by side, tucked into the earth. He pats them firmly in place and sets them out on the narrow balcony. “Make sure you use them when you cook. Don’t forget they are outside the window,” as he gathers up the newspapers and packs the tools away. He brushes the black dirt off of his hands and smiles, proud of his thoughtful gift.

 Never did I realize how good zucchini could be until I moved to Italy. How important it is that they don't grow as big as my dear aunt liked hers to be (huge, watery, whale like things), that they are small and firm but above all fresh. The best zucchini I ever had grew in the garden of a friend's mother in Apulia, lovely and sweet zucchini that you could almost eat raw, they were so good.


pie crust:
5 medium sized potatoes, unpeeled
100-150 g / 3,5-5.3 oz butter or olive oil
500-600 ml / 2.1-2.5 cups flour
1,5 tsp baking powder
OR a pie crust of your choice, home made or bought

1,2 kg/ 2,6 lb zucchini
20 cherry tomatoes
a small bunch of fresh thyme, if you use dried thyme go a little easy with it as it is stronger than the fresh one
a pinch of chile pepper flakes (optional)
1 lightly crushed clove of garlic
2-3 tbs breadcrumbs
extra-virgin olive oil

  Make the dough: Boil the potatoes and when they are ready, peel and press them through a potato ricer. Do it while they are still warm because when they are cold it is really hard to press them through the little holes. Let the potatoes cool down a bit before adding butter, flour and the baking powder. Check if it is salt enough. You might have to add more flour depending on how watery the potatoes are, the feeling of the dough has to be elastic and not too firm. Line a pie tin with the dough, use the leftover dough to decorate with if you want.

   Cut the zucchini into 0,5 cm/0,2 in slices. Heat up olive oil in a large skillet with a sprinkle of chili pepper flakes and the garlic, after a couple of minutes add the zucchini, season with salt and thyme and fry on medium heat until golden, stirring often. It usually takes around 20 minutes.

   Pour half of the cooked zucchini into the pie form, distribute half of the tomatoes and cover with the rest of the zucchini. Press down the remaining cherry tomatoes, sprinkle with breadcrumbs and a few sprigs of thyme.
   Bake in a pre-heated oven (175°C / 347°F) for about 20-30 minutes or until the crust is colden.


  1. I love herbs and adore the flavor fresh (or dry) thyme. I'lva's savory summer tart looks amazing and extremely palatable!

    A fabulous post again!



  2. Loving these pieces... beautifully written, beautifully photographed! So inspiring.

  3. I must have plenty of thyme to spare to make this, since I'm crazy about this herb too. Wonderful writing as ever, Jamie and Ilva, stunning, as well as that pie. Can smell its fragrance from the screen!

  4. Hurrah, it's Monday! (How many times have you heard that phrase??) What wonderful images and words - like good music. I can almost smell the thyme. (Is that variegated thyme in the lovely ceramic pot lemon thyme?)

    We NEVER have enough thyme! Like you we adore it.

    Every year, I plant silver thyme, regular thyme and lemon thyme in our balcony pots. Some years they survive the winter. Other years, like this one, one, two, or all fail to survive. This year, only the regular thyme emerged when spring finally arrived.

  5. I forgot to ask: what is the significance of the lemons in the silver (pewter?) dish?

  6. Just beautiful! Thyme moves through the seasons so easily, too...

  7. I would love to come visit the place in Italy with the huge marble table and French windows open to the breeze and sun, perfumed by the rosemary and thyme just outside. Instead I'll bake Ilva's lucious tart with small, sweet zucchini from the garden and thyme that welcomed bees and hummingbirds today. Love, lovely post and photos!

  8. I have a savory tooth and that tart is so perfect for the season. And nothing can smell more refreshing than fresh herbs!

  9. Herbs can revolutionise a dish. This pie is beautiful - I can almost savour it. Beautiful tomatoes and courgettes. I got very curious about the potatoes in the crust.