The Mint Family

The forty species of mint is just one branch of the vast labiatae
family with its 2000 members. Fortunately just a handful of mints are
more than adequate for most culinary purposes.

The most valuable is spearmint, Mentha spicata, with smooth,  pointed
leaves. Some cooks reckon the best mint sauce is made with a mixture of
spearmint and the woolly leaves of Bowles’ mint – named after Edward
Augustus Bowles, the horticulturalist and writer – which has round-ended
leaves and is one of the few mints to grow in a dry situation.

Although, as an accompaniment to roast lamb Mint Sauce has its
devotees, I prefer Mint Jelly, which also has the advantage of being
available all year round. Mint Jelly is made by stirring finely chopped
fresh mint leaves into apple or crab apple jelly just before it is
poured into hot, dry jars. A drop of green food colouring improves its
appearance but is not essential.

It is the volatile oil containing menthol and stored in resinous
pockets in the leaves and stem which gives mint its pungency. Finely
chopped mint leaves scattered over buttered new potatoes and fresh
garden peas is an essential part of English summer food. And this useful
herb also adds a fine flavour to fish, meat and cheese dishes.

Mint has a great affinity with lemon and much of the cooking of the
Middle East and India makes use of this combination. Try tossing hot,
shallow-fried meatballs made from minced lamb in a mixture of finely
chopped mint leaves and grated zest of lemon. Or stir chopped mint
leaves into lemon ice-cream or a strawberry sorbet and freeze as usual.

I grow a selection of mints in the shady border beneath a morello
cherry tree, set in cobbles, which fortunately confine the roots. Unless
you can give plenty of growing space for this perennial herb, it is
usually best to plant mint in a container sunk into the ground or to
wedge some slates or tiles, end-on, around the plant to prevent the
invasive runners taking over the whole area.

It is easy to grow extra plants by potting up some of the rooted
runners. Or start with a few stalks of mint in a jar of water left on a
sunny windowsill for 7-10 days until thin, white roots have developed.
Pot up the rooted stalk and place in half-shade until established. Mint
is a greedy plant which enjoys an occasional dressing of well-rotted
compost or an organic fertiliser.

If you have room in your garden for more relatives of the popular
spearmint, I recommend apple mint, Mentha suaveolens, plus a variegated
green and cream pineapple mint, Mentha x gentilis, a purple-toned
eau-de-cologne mint, Mentha piperata ‘Citrata’, with the pale green
striped ginger mint, Mentha x aquatica ‘Citrata’. All these mints are
edible and I like to scatter the first tiny sprigs of the mint season
over a fruit salad. And a few stems of any of the mint family give a
beautiful scent to a small jug of flowers for table or bedside.

Mint leaves are essential to many cool summer drinks such a home-made
lemonade or a Mint Julep, that welcome refresher from the southern
states of America. In his Diary of America (1839) the English author
Captain Marryat, famous for his novels about the navy, concedes that
there are many forms of Mint-Julep but recommends this version:
“Put into a tumbler about a dozen sprigs of the tender shoots of mint,
upon them put a spoonful of white sugar, and equal proportions of peach
and common brandy, so as to fill it up one-third, or perhaps a little
less. Then take rasped or pounded ice, and fill up the tumbler. As the
ice melts you drink.” This 160 year-old recipe still works well in
France where a wide variety of brandies is available. However, in the UK
and US whisky often replaces the brandies. Yet I find that sipped
outside, on a warm summer evening, either version of Mint Julep somehow
puts the whole garden into proper perspective.