The end of the summer bounty is upon us in the U.S. In a temperate region that means potted herbs are mature for picking, aromatic gardens overflow, and farmers markets brim with copious amounts of fresh and dried herbs. The widespread herbs thyme, bay leaf and parsley are the basis for a classic French bouquet garni. Individually, or as a neatly tied bunch, these delicately scented plants impart a savory flavor and a powerful medicinal punch.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris), bay leaf (Laurus nobilis) and parsley (Petroselinum crispum) have their origins in the Mediterranean and are part of the mint, laurel and parsley families, respectively.
The term “bouquet garni,” according to Alan Davidson, editor of “The Oxford Companion to Food,” entered the English language in the mid 19th century. Davidson writes that the mixture began to appear in French cookery in the 17th century and grew in popularity. This occurred as part of a move away from highly spiced medieval dishes to the more subtle — and significantly less expensive — flavors herbs could provide. The little bundle is most often cooked with various stocks, savory soups and aromatic stews to impart an herbaceous flavor. (See Patricia Wells’ Double Celery Soup recipe below.)
There is no universal recipe for a bouquet garni. But the three herbs usually provide the flavor foundation. And since cooks, rightly so, have their own preferences, the composition of the bundle is regional, seasonal and variable.
Cooks Illustrated advises tying fresh herbs together with kitchen twine, leaving one end of the string long enough to wrap around the pot handle so the herb bundle is easily pulled out and discarded. If dried herbs are used, the mixture is loosely wrapped in a small piece of cheesecloth and tightly tied.
Thyme, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is derived from Middle English that is based on Old French thym, via Latin from Greek thumon, from thuein, which means burn/sacrifice. In fact, to “smell of thyme” in ancient Greece meant one was praised for an admirable style; perhaps the courage to sacrifice oneself evoked respect and admiration. Yet it was the ancient Romans who apparently first cooked with thyme to flavor both cheeses and liqueurs, according to the American Botanical Council. Nicholas Culpeper, a radical 17th century English herbalist who worked to make simple herbal remedies affordable to the common person, documented that thyme teas and infusions improved whooping cough, shortness of breath, gout and mild stomach pains. He suggested a thyme ointment to alleviate hot swelling and eliminate abscesses and warts. For more 17th Century uses, see Culpeper’s Complete Herbal.
The ancient Greeks also held parsley and bay leaf in high esteem. They crowned victors with parsley and bay leaf garlands at the Isthmian games, and made parsley wreaths to decorate tombs. Margaret Grieve, author of the 1931 book “A Modern Herbal,” reported that parsley has carminative, tonic and laxative effects but is chiefly used as a diuretic with special emphasis on the kidneys. And that parsley had a unique ability to dispel poisons and overcome strong smells, such as garlic. Culpeper recommended numerous internal and external uses for the leaf, berry, bark and root.
Thyme is often used in combination with several other herbs to treat coughs. Two double-blind placebo controlled trials from the journal Arzneimittel-Forschung from Germany documented the beneficial effects of a liquid extract and a dry herbal mixture consisting of thyme and ivy to treat acute bronchitis with a productive cough. In last year’s Journal of Clinical Biochemistry and Nutrition, it was reported that daily bay leaf consumption decreased risk factors for diabetes and cardiovascular diseases and suggested that the leaves may be beneficial for people with type 2 diabetes.
Finally, common parsley is rich in a plant chemical called apigenin, a naturally occurring flavone. Apigenin has been shown to possess remarkable anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anti-carcinogenic properties according to a review in the International Journal of Oncology. This year’s Pharmaceutical Research journal suggested that a diet rich in flavones is related to a decreased risk of certain cancers such as breast, digestive tract, skin, prostate and certain blood malignancies. Furthermore, apigenin, it is inferred, may be protective in other diseases such as cardiovascular and neurological disorders. As always more research is needed, in particular, more human studies.
In the meantime, why not eat more bouquet garni herbs? Victoriously chomp that parsley sprig that embellishes your plate, wisely toss an extra bay leaf into your simmering pot of beans, and courageously throw just a little more thyme in your bubbling stew — it will not only boost flavor but perhaps prolong your time, here, on earth.
Double Celery Soup/Soupe Aux Deux Celeris
It is a kind of soup the French call “soupe de sante,” or a soup for the sick, sort of like our chicken soup. This recipe is reprinted by permission from “Bistro Cooking” by Patricia Wells. Yield: 6-8 servings
- In a large saucepan, combine the celery root, celery, leeks, and bouquet garni. Add the stock, and season gently with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat.
- Simmer until the vegetables are soft, about 25 minutes. Adjust the seasonings.
- Pour into warmed shallow bowls. Sprinkle with the chopped herbs and serve immediately.
Sarah Khan, an assistant scientist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, founded the nonprofit Tasting Cultures Foundation, which develops multimedia educational programming about the intersection of food and culture.