About Me
I'm a Melbourne boy, hailing from St Kilda with one ex, one current wife and four kids. Love the outdoors and making new discoveries. I cook a lot at home (cheers from wife) and do some preserving, mostly jams, pickles and fruit liqueurs. This is the diary of a cooking journey.

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Monday, September 25, 2006
Weekend Herb Blogging # 52
WHB is one year old. Hooray!!!

To celebrate, Kalyn of Kalyn's Kitchen has decided to have all the participants nominate their favourite herb in a recipe, with Kalyn announcing her favourite herb on Saturday, then a recap placing all the herbs in order of popularity on Sunday. Phew, that should be quite some job. My quiet tip is for Kalyn to nominate a herb starting with B and the most popular herb might also share a B, though Sophie Grigson is on record as saying the most popular herb in the world is coriander. I wonder.

The herb I would like to nominate is one that almost could have been the national herb of Australia. This country is particularly poor in herbs given that while eucalyptus leaves are very aromatic, the oil contained therein is poisonous, leaving lemon myrtle as just about our only indigenous herb. However there is one herb that has great significance to all Aussies, found on the battlefield where the knockabout Australian attitude was transformed into a national identity. Every year on Remembrance Day, diggers (soldiers) proudly wear a sprig of rosemary on their uniforms as a symbol of that day, April 25th, 1915 when Australian troops landed on the Gallipoli peninsula to take on the Turks.

At this time Turkish farmers eked out a living from the poor soils, growing peppers and tomatoes as best they could. Where the soil was too difficult to work it was left wild and was carpeted by herbs, two in particular, rosemary and thyme, both hardy perennials. A soldier, Aspinall, wrote about the place,

The grassy slopes that crown the cliffs are carpeted with flowers. The azure sky is cloudless; the air is fragrant with the scent of wild thyme. In front, beyond a smiling valley studded with cypress and olive and patches of young corn, the ground rises gently to the village of Krithia, standing amidst clumps of mulberry and oaks; and thence more steeply to a frowning ridge beyond, its highest point like the hump of a camel's back. Away to the right, edged with a ribbon of silvery sand, lie the sapphire arc of Morto Bay, the glistening Dardenelles, and the golden fields of Troy.

Australians adopted rosemary with its long stalks and narrow spiky leaves as a reminder of that place, ignoring the softer thyme plants and it is thyme that I want to feature as my favourite herb, for while rosemary has a wonderful flavour it has a tendency to dominate, like an officer, unlike thyme which is a workhorse herb, making it more like the common soldier.

I'm pretty sure that thyme won't make it as the most popular herb in the roundup, that honour will likely go to basil or coriander, maybe even parsley, but the all round versatility of thyme makes it my absolute favourite herb. It can be used anywhere, cooked or fresh, the leaves can be dried for use later on, and it adds just the right touch to so many dishes. I'm not really sure why I like it so much, perhaps because it was the first herb outside of parsley that I used. For me coriander runs a very close second as it's also extremely versatile and all parts of this herb can be used, right down to the roots. But when you cook with coriander, it seems to lose flavour and when used fresh it certainly dominates, so I guess I'm voting for thyme as it's a team player.

Unlike today, when someone can drop a bomb through your open window, in 1915 landing somewhere on the correct beach was considered a bonus; many soldiers were simply put on the wrong spot. This became the motif for the entire campaign, with both sides making dreadful mistakes that cost many thousands of lives. Australians like to blame English officers for many of these mistakes, but the truth was that there were also plenty of errors committed by Australian officers, even one of our best generals, Monash, admitted later to making one. But it was the ordinary soldiers of both sides who suffered and united by their suffering came to respect one another in a way that was uncommon in war, where hatred of the enemy is the norm.

It's strange to think of a campaign that ended in defeat as the catalyst for the formation of our national identity, just as it was strange for disgraced businessman Alan Bond, the first person outside of America to win the America's Cup yacht race, to compare his victory to winning at Gallipoli. It was a war that wiped out the cream of several nation's youth in conditions that today seem scarcely believable. To be ordered from the relative safety of the trenches to charge at an enemy well dug in and armed with machineguns seems the height of stupidity, but that is what happened. The aftermath of this was that bodies were left to rot in the hot sun, both sides realized that this could not be left to happen, so periodic truces were called to allow time to bury the dead. It was during these truces that men from both sides fraternised, swapping rations.

The Turks were just as shocked at the carnage as we were, one of them was moved to say, ' At this spectacle even the most gentle must feel savage, and the most savage must weep.' Another said pointing to the fresh dug graves, 'That's politics,' then pointing at all the dead bodies said, ' That's diplomacy. God pity all of us poor soldiers...'

It seems incredible to us today that a truce could be called and for soldiers of both sides to mix freely, swapping rations, not that Australian soldiers had much to offer, only tins of Bully beef and hardened biscuits and the Turks were little better off. But necessity is the mother of invention and it would not be too hard a stretch to imagine a Turkish soldier coming up to one of our soldiers and offering a little something. Here is what an imaginary digger had to say about it.

We saw a johnny turk scurrying around collecting firewood, no-one took a pot-shot at him for we know a truce is imminent. We could see the puff of smoke a few yards away in their trench, maybe they were boiling a billy, but then the most amazing smell of food came wafting our way. No idea what it was, but after a month of bully beef it smelt like the finest meal you could ever imagine. Shortly after the truce started, no-one was hurrying to be first over the top, but gradually we all got out of the trench, it was wonderful to move around at full stretch, not having to worry about a shrapnel shell exploding above our scones. Then a Turkish soldier came over to me with his tin plate, the same one that had gathered the firewood. On the plate were strips of pepper that he had roasted over the flames. He apologised that he had no salt to season them, so I handed him a tin of bully beef and said there was more than enough salt in there. Then I tasted his charred peppers, they had a dressing of olive oil, Lord knows how he got hold of that, and flavoured with a few leaves of the wild thyme that grows all about. I don't think that if I ever live to a hundred years old, that I will ever taste a finer meal than that, the taste will stay with me forever.

Peppers with Thyme

3 or 4 mild peppers or capsicums
fruity olive oil
thyme leaves, stripped from 6 sprigs
1 clove garlic, crushed
salt & fresh ground pepper

Char the pepper skins until black over an open flame or under a grill. Place in a bowl and cover, leave until cool. Peel off as much skin as possible, but don't wash, a few black specks are okay. Cut the peppers into strips and mix with all the ingredients, leave overnight. Serve with some good sourdough bread.
  posted at 1:18 pm

At 12:53 pm, Blogger Kalyn Denny said...

The first vote for thyme. I agree, it's quite wonderful. I think I use it more in the winter than in the summer, in chicken soup of course, but also in all kinds of vegetable and rice dishes. A great choice.

I am pretty sure my own choice is not going to win, but I'm going to stay loyal.

At 3:35 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for that heartfelt tribute - eloquence to be envied

At 7:16 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is a beautiful post - what a tribute to the history of Australia and one of the most underrated herbs out there.

At 8:24 am, Blogger neil said...

Hi kalyn, you should try it in some summery dishes like the grilled peppers - it is a hot climate herb. It can be used as part of a dry rub mix for grilled chicken, even a few leaves in a salad adds just the right touch.

Hi anon, thanks for your kind words. It's kind of amazing that kids of the younger generation are discovering the Anzac legend, there are still a lot of relevant lessons contained in it.

Hi ellie, thank-you. It was difficult to start as I didn't want to emphasize the gory nature of this battle, rather that Turkish mothers loved their sons too.


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