Bountiful Mints

Mint is a useful and often overlooked culinary herb

| February/March 2004


Rats dislike peppermint so much that medieval rat catchers used it as a weapon. The battle plan: Soak rags in oil of peppermint and stuff the rags into all but a few of the resident rats’ holes. Then, turn ferrets loose on the rats, driving the varmints out the remaining open holes and into bags, to be drowned.

In contrast to rats, most humans find all things minty a delight. Dessert doesn’t get much fancier than an artful combination of chocolate and mint. And in even the most humble country cottage, a tired body can find comfort in a cup of peppermint tea, simply brewed from home-saved leaves.

We do ourselves a favor when we opt to "look after" a few mints, rather than banish them completely from our gardens.  

But a sprig can quickly turn into a forest, and there’s the rub. In 1629, John Parkinson was moved to lament this fact in his great book, A Garden of Pleasant Flowers. “The rootes runne creeping in the ground,” he warned, “and as the rest, will hardly be cleared out of a garden being once therein.”

Maude Grieve, whose 1931 book A Modern Herbal gives us the rat tale, noted mint was universally esteemed by the ancients despite its invasive habits. Her study of old tomes found references to mint’s medicinal and culinary properties as far back as Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist who lived from 23 to 79 a.d. A practical Englishwoman, Grieve passed on to us mint’s medicinal uses, mostly associated with digestion — colic, stomach cramps, nausea and the like — as well as a few culinary possibilities. Her recipes include mint cake “made with flour and drippings or lard, flavoured with sugar and chopped fresh mint and rolled out thin.”

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