My early childhood in Kiev was that idyllic time that I shall never forget. We lived in a tiny apartment on the sixth floor of a Soviet constructivist high-rise with a community garden. It was surrounded by apple and apricot trees that bloomed in spring, filling the air with most intoxicating perfumes. Our parents planted strawberries, gooseberries, raspberries and herbs. We imagined the garden to be filled with magical lore. It was our playground. It was then that I began collecting herbs and flowers. I dried and glued them into the pages of my handcrafted diary. I looked up their meaning and Latin names in my grandfather’s leather-bound encyclopedias. I often came across botanical drawings beautifully executed with meticulous details like the French 18th century masterpieces by Nicolas François Regnault. Long gone is my childhood. Long lost is my diary. What propels me to recreate a photo version of that diary are memories that I shall cherish for the rest of my life. To this day those herb scented pages stir my senses.
I begin with rosemary and thyme, a most simple pair of herbs that awaken food flavors invoking glimpses of ancient forests from beginning of time.
Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, is a woody, perennial herb with fragrant, evergreen, needle-like leaves and white, pink or purple flowers, native to the Mediterranean region. The name derives from the Latin words ros marinus, which translate as dew of the sea. According to legend, it was draped around the Greek goddess Aphrodite when she rose from the sea. The Virgin Mary is said to have spread her blue cloak over a white-blossomed rosemary bush when she was resting, and the flowers turned blue. The shrub then became known as the 'Rose of Mary'.
Thyme, Thymus vulgaris or common thyme, is a well-known culinary herb. It also has medicinal uses. Common thyme is also a Mediterranean native. Ancient Egyptians used thyme for embalming. The ancient Greeks used it in their baths and burnt it as incense in their temples, believing it was a source of courage. The spread of thyme throughout Europe was thought to be due to the Romans, as they used it to purify their rooms and to "give an aromatic flavor to cheese and liqueurs". In the European Middle Ages, the herb was placed beneath pillows to aid sleep and ward off nightmares. In this period, women would also often give knights and warriors gifts that included thyme leaves, as it was believed to bring courage to its bearer.
I often start my stocks with this wonderfully fragrant pair of herbs. And as many cooks will attest to, braises and stews come to life with rosemary and thyme.