Foraging by smell!

Large Thyme

Thursday 3rd January 2013

Change of habitat today, a blustery walk along chalk downland and a bit more productive than yesterday. As to be expected a completely different mix of plants from yesterday (which was on heathland and woodland on the Greensand Ridge, so acidic soil). There was plenty of hawthorn scrub but only a few remaining berries which hadn’t been eaten by the Fieldfares and Redwings, and still lots of rosehips on the Dog Roses. On the ground found quite a lot of Salad Burnett Poterium sanguisorba which smells of cucumber when crushed and can be eaten as a salad as well as Sweet Violet Viola odorata the leaves of which again are edible but it is the flowers which form later in the year which I tend to use as they have the wonderful smell and taste of the old fashioned parma violet sweets.

Both these plants are lovers of calcareous soil and so are typical of chalk downland and limestone areas. Another plant that is also found in these areas is Large Thyme Thymus pulegioides. At this time of year it is found in low growing shrubs in among the grass and other downland plants and can be difficult to find, becoming easier to find later in the year when it produces its purple flowers. I managed to find it today by smell. As my dogs and me walked over the short rabbit browsed turf I kept getting wafts of the lovely fragrant smell, it was then a case of getting on my hands and knees and searching for it. Like many aromatic herbs the flavour is more intense in summer when it is flowering, but as a perennial herb you will find it all year.

Large Thyme
Large Thyme Thymus pulegioides

It is very closely related to it cultivated cousin garden thyme Thymus vulgaris  and can be used in exactly the same way it’s just not quite so strong so you need more of it. It works well in a range of savoury dishes going particularly well with chicken and rabbit. Use it as part of a bouquet garni in stews, sauces, jumbalya etc. Thyme is also used alot in Carribean cooking. In Miles Irving’s Forager Handbook he suggests using it in deserts particularly with apples and pears.

There are some plants which look superficially similar to Thyme like some of the sandworts and mouse-ears but the smell is diagnostic. There are two other species of Thyme that grow naturally in this country Wild Thyme Thymus drucei which grows more in mats and has smaller leaves, it also has a much fainter thyme smell and taste. There is also the very rare Breckland Thyme Thymus serpyllum, which only grows in the East Anglian Breckland and is so rare shouldn’t be collected.
I mentioned in an earlier blog how at this time of year you can look for the dead stems of the previous years plants to plan where to forage later in the year. At the bottom of the downs there were loads of the tall reddish brown stems of Mugwort Artemisia vulgaris. Look for the silvery underside of the dead leaves and there may still be the silvery white clustered and fluffy looking seed head on the ends of the stems and upper branches. Later in the year, mid summer onwards, the leaves can be collected and used as a herb to accompany fatty meats like duck and goose.

Last Year’s Mugwort Artemisia vulgaris

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