Make a bouquet garni by placing the 3 sprigs thyme, parsley, garlic cloves, and peppercorns in cheesecloth and tying with kitchen twine. Add wine, water, and bouquet garni to a large saucepan and bring to a simmer. Add the clams, cover with a lid, and cook until clams open. Strain the clams into a bowl, reserving both the juice and clams.
Return the pan to the heat, add olive oil, and heat over medium-high heat. Add bacon and cook until crispy. Add onion and cook for 1 minute. Add garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Add celery and carrot and cook until tender. Sprinkle flour into pan, stir to make a roux, and cook until flour is incorporated; do not let roux brown. Add more oil if mixture seems dry.
Add 1 more fresh thyme sprig, and return the strained clam cooking liquid to the pan and bring to a simmer for 30 minutes, or until vegetables are tender. Add potato, milk, lemon juice, and cayenne and simmer until potato is tender. Meanwhile, remove clams from their shells and roughly chop clams. When potato is tender, add clams back into the pan, add cream, and season with salt and pepper, to taste. Stir to combine, and as soon as clams are heated through, remove from the heat.
Ladle soup into serving bowls. Garnish each with croutons and a sprig of fresh thyme. Serve immediately.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Place bread cubes in a large bowl. Drizzle with garlic and chili oil and sprinkle with parsley. Season with salt and pepper, to taste, and toss well. Pour onto a sheet pan in 1 even layer and bake until crispy and golden brown, about 10 minutes. Serve on top of chowder.
Chili and Garlic Oil:
Yield:About 2 cups
In a small saucepan, combine the garlic cloves and olive oil and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat and simmer until the garlic begins to turn brown, 10 to 15 minutes. (Do not let the garlic get too brown or the oil will have a bitter taste.)
Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature. Add the red pepper flakes and infuse for at least 2 hours to allow the flavors to blend. Refrigerate in a covered container for up to 2 weeks.