Mint is the herb of hospitality. It is an herb rich in history and folklore. The legend behind mint is that when Persephone found out that the god Pluto was in love with a beautiful nymph named Minthe, she turned Minthe into a lowly plant. Although Pluto couldn't undo the spell, he made it so that when Minthe was stepped upon, it would exude a pleasant odor. The word Minthe changed to Mentha, and became the genus name Mint.
Rich in history and legend, mint is one of the favorite herbs of mankind. In this article we will discuss mint, its history, uses and how it is grown.
The History of Mint
Since medieval times, mint has been an important herb. People would strew mint about the home to freshen the smell. It was used in the bath, and became an important medicinal herb in the eighteenth century. It has been used to cure colic, digestive odors and a host of other ailments. As a medicine, it is one of the herbs that really works as a bone remedy, and the taste of mint is enjoyed by everyone. Peppermint, spearmint and pennyroyal are the three most commonly used of the mints. Japanese and peppermint are the sources for the important medicinal menthol.
The Uses of Mint
Depending on where you go in the world, mint is either despised or highly praised as a culinary herb. The French despise it. The English adore it. The Italians and Spanish people are somewhere in between. In the Middle East and India, it is used heavily in cooking.
One reason people feel so strongly about mint is that it is a very overpowering herb. When you get beyond candy and desserts, you quickly run out of options unless wise in the ways of the herb. Although it does complement many different foods, and works well with other herbs, it can be very overpowering. The biggest thing that most chefs don't know about mint is that there are over two dozen distinct species of mint, and others in the family are much better suited for cooking than peppermint and spearmint. Peppermint and spearmint goes well with hot weather cookery, and is used in such dishes as vegetables and lamb. A search of a main recipe site showed that other species of mint got little mention.
The American chef usually balks at the thought of using mint in many dishes because of its overpowering essence. To use mint as a complementary herb in cooking, try apple mint or even pineapple mint. At the very least, the well planned herb garden will contain spearmint and apple mint, and peppermint if you are big on candy and desserts.
The biggest problem botanists face concerning mint is that one; it is a highly invasive species. Secondly, it has a tendency to cross pollinate, thus the over two dozen recognized species. There are reportedly over 200 varieties of mint. This is to the advantage to the chef who wants the sweet taste of mint but doesn't want to overpower a dish with a heavy mint taste.
Mint is very easy to grow as long as you remember that it is very invasive. It grows well in moist soil, and should be fertilized annually. Apply fertilizer in late summer. If using for cooking, be sure to prune ruthlessly, so that stalks don't get woody and large. Mint will survive almost any condition it is grown under, so there is no need to pamper.
TIP: Some gardeners fertilize mint in different seasons depending on which kind of mint they grow and whether they used compost to plant it. Ask local gardeners what they think is the best time to fertilize it.
To harvest mint, cut off sprigs that are green and not woody. Use sharp scissors to cut. Lay mint sprigs between two sheets of paper towel, and microwave for 3 to 4 minutes on high, checking dryness. You can also tie the sprigs together and hang to dry naturally in a warm dry place. Mint can be frozen in a Ziploc bag.
A Mint Recipe
Everyone has heard of that fabulous southern concoction, the mint julep. Here is a version sure to please.
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 cup water
- 8 fresh mint sprigs, finely chopped
- 1 quart bourbon
- 10 fresh mint sprigs
Combine the sugar, water, chopped mint and the bourbon in a glass container and stir until sugar dissolves.
Cover and let stand 4 to 6 hours.
Strain the mixture into a large pitcher, using cheesecloth, and discard the chopped mint.To serve, fill glasses with crushed ice, add the mixture, and garnish with fresh mint springs.
Mint, if used correctly, is a boon to every herb garden and chef. If all you need is mint for making candy, it is a good idea to just buy a bottle of peppermint extract. If you want to experiment with mint, however, grow it in your herb garden. The tastes of summer will always be with you.