It was time last week to replant the mint tub. This got us thinking about the delicious herb we enjoy pretty much all year around. There are many varieties, some say hundreds of types. They come with labels as varied and evocative as applemint, eau-de-cologne, pennyroyal, peppermint, vietnamese mint, and wintermint. But it was the common spearmint that we planted. And it will be this mint that we use in our afternoon tradition of a pot of fresh mint tea.
Many types of mint
Mint is the common name of most plants of the genus Mentha. They hybridise easily, so it is a little confusing, but for the cook they can be roughly divided into two categories. Spearmint is the one we call garden or common mint: this is the most usual cooking mint, the one we scatter over vegetables and through salads. Peppermint is more peppery and spicy, and it has a soothing quality. It has the menthol notes, stimulating cold sensors on your tongue, tricking your brain into feeling a little chill.
Commercially, common mint is the widely available species. But it is easy to grow your own, more unusual varieties. It grows really well in tubs. In fact, given is tendency to spread prolifically, it is often best grown this way. (And we are told that the trick, if you do want to plant it in the ground, is to sink it into the earth in a large bottomless pot, to limit its growth.)
It is fitting that a herb that is used so widely, and grows so easily, has a mythological history. We have read that its name comes from Minthe, the nymph who so captivated Pluto that his jealous wife, Proserpina, transformed her into lowly mint, destined forever to creep along the ground. Pluto's loss of Minthe was our gain.
Mint all over the world
Mint is a New Zealand passion, but we cannot say it is our passion exclusively. It is very possible to trace its use through the world, from a traditional mint sauce with New Zealand spring lamb, to the kofte of Turkey and dolmades of Greece, the teas and tagines of Morocco, the yoghurt mint sauces and tabboulehs of the Middle East, the raitas and chutneys of India, the mint drinks of the American south, and the pungent salads and dipping sauces of Asia.
Mint for spring and summer
Mint is available all year round, grown in greenhouses, but if we are to be seasonal about this (and we are….) we think of it best with the bounty of spring. That’s why we’ve replanted it now. New Zealanders have long loved mint in jellies and sauces with meat, especially lamb. But, with or without that spring lamb, it is also a perfect companion to spring and early summer vegetables. First, asparagus, broad beans, and peas, and then aubergines and zucchini taste wonderful with shredded and scattered mint.
And the peak season for all mint is summer. (We are certainly looking forward to that peak season.) That’s when mint comes into its own and it goes so well in our drinks. Set mint sprigs in ice to add to punches or fruit drinks. Add a sprig of mint into a gin and tonic instead of, or as well as, the usual lime or lemon slice. And it’s hard to go past that fresh mint tea, click here.