What is Mint?
Mint has been used for many centuries. The name comes from the Greek legend of the nymph Minthe, who attracted the attention of Hades. Hades’ wife, the jealous Persephone, attacked Minthe and was in the process of trampling her to death when Hades turned her into the herb (and was ever sacred to him).
A symbol of hospitality and wisdom, “the very smell of it reanimates the spirit”, Pliny tells us. Ancient Hebrews scattered mint on their synagogue floors so that each footstep would raise its fragrance. Ancient Greeks and Romans rubbed tables with mint before their guests arrive. The Romans brought it and mint sauce to Britain. The pilgrims brought it to the United States aboard the Mayflower. The Japanese have distilled peppermint oil for several centuries and the oil is further treated to produce menthol.
The smell is known to keep mice away and pennyroyal is also regarded as an effective insecticidal against fleas and aphids.
The leaves of several species (there are over 40 varieties) of the plant Mentha, the commonest in culinary use being spearmint (mentha spicata or crispa). Pennyroyal (mentha pulegium) is also used in the kitchen and peppermint (mentha piperita) is cultivated for its oil. There are many varieties in cultivation, each with a distinctive bouquet and flavour, but here we will describe only the three mentioned above. Spearmint and peppermint leaves are deep green, long , pointed and crinkled. Pennyroyal has small oval leaves, greyish in colour.
Bouquet: Spearmint and peppermint: aromatic and fresh Pennyroyal: aromatic, pungent and acrid
Flavour: Spearmint is generally a sweet flavour imparting a cool sensation to the mouth. Peppermint has a stronger menthol taste. Pennyroyal is strong with a medicinal flavour.
Hotness Scale: 0-2
Preparation and Storage
Dried mint should be kept in a tightly sealed glass jar away from light.
For most culinary purposes spearmint is the preferred variety. Mint combines well with many vegetables such as new potatoes, tomatoes, carrots and peas. A few chopped leaves give refreshment to green salads and salad dressings. Pennyroyal is used to season haggis and black puddings. Peppermint is more commonly used in desserts, adding fresh flavour to fruits, ices and sherberts. Spearmint is popular in the Balkans and Middle East, where it is used both fresh and dried with grilled meats, stuffed vegetables and rice and is an essential ingredient of dolmas, stuffed vine leaves. Dried mint is sprinkled over hummus and other pulse and grain dishes. Yogurt dressings, dips and soups often include mint. In India fresh mint chutney is served with birianis. American mint julep is a southern classic and a glass of English Pimms #1 must always be served with a sprig of mint. Mint tea is enjoyed copiously by Moslem Arabs. Peppermint is used to flavour toothpaste, chewing gum and liqueurs such as creme de menthe.
It is carminative, stimulative, stomachic, diaphoretic and antispasmodic. Peppermint has the highest concentrations of menthol, while preparations of spearmint are often given to children. It is a general pick-me-up, good for colds, flu and fevers. Herbalists tell us it helps digestion, rheumatism, hiccups, stings, ear aches, flatulence and for throat and sinus ailments. There are also claims that a glass of creme de menthe helps with motion sickness.
Plant Description and Cultivation
Native to the Mediterranean, mint is now grown virtually worldwide. Spearmint is a herbaceous perennial growing as high as 1m (3 ft) with gray-green leaves and tiered clusters of small blue or purple flowers in spikes. Peppermint is a hybrid of spearmint with spikes of mauve flowers and red tinged leaves. Pennyroyal is a smaller plant with pink flowers. Mints thrive in cool and moist places but will grow virtually anywhere. Propagate by division, or transplant the underground runners. It can be very invasive in a garden. To dry, hang sprigs in bunches in a warm airy place.
It is one of the few culinary herbs that grows well in shady areas, although it can handle full sun if kept watered. Cuttings will root easily in soil or water and mature plants can be divided and transplanted. However you can start new plants from seed. Sow outdoors in late spring or start seed indoors about 8-10 weeks before the last frost. Keep soil moist until seed germinates. It prefers a rich, moist soil with a slightly acidic pH between 6.5 and 7.0. If the soil is somewhat lean, top dress yearly with organic matter and apply an organic fertilizer mid-season, after shearing. To contain the roots and limit spreading, you can grow mint in containers, above or sunk into the ground. Be careful to keep container mints from flopping over and touching the ground. Stems will root quickly, if given the chance.
French: menthe verte
German: Grune Minze
Italian: menta verde Spanish: menta verde
Greek: dhiozmos, menda
Indian: podina, pudeena, pudina
Lao: pak hom ho
Malay: daun kesom
French: menthe anglaise, menthe poivrée
Italian: menta peprina
Spanish: menta peperita
Mentha spp Fam: Labiata
Recipes using Mint
Spearmint is included in our Mediterranean Spice Collection.