“Parts is parts,” so the fried chicken commercial went. To many, the same lack of appreciation applies to mint. But mint isn’t just mint.
Most everyone who has ever cultivated a few herbs for kitchen use has set out some mint plants. These were either peppermint or spearmint. Of the two, peppermint has a more delicate nature and requires more care in order to keep it over the winter. Spearmint, though, seems capable of not only existing but also thriving in the most inhospitable environments.
Hybridizers have created lots of new mint varieties. These come in a wide range of flavors, some of which seem inappropriate (chocolate mint comes immediately to mind). Others have a pleasing appearance, variegated peppermint, for example.
But what did people do before the introduction of European varieties of mint arrived on these shores? Simple. They went to the nearest stream, brook or wet area and harvested the abundant wild mint that offers itself so freely to our use.
Wild mint, Mentha canadensis, grows throughout Maine. It differs from cultivated mint in that it has a more powerful and I think cleaner, minty fragrance.
Each summer, I visit different trout streams (fishing and foraging go well together) and do my best to catch a few brook trout and harvest a bag of mint. Whether or not the trout bite, I usually come home with some mint. This, I dry by placing in a brown ash basket and hanging it from a beam in my kitchen. The fully dried mint then goes into a recycled spaghetti sauce jar, there to remain until winter arrives and fresh mint is no longer available.
Sometimes I crave a cup of hot, mint tea. A heaping teaspoon of crushed, wild mint leaves and a scant cup of boiling water make for a strong brew. The hot water releases the fragrant volatile oils and these immediately infuse the air with their captivating aroma.
I sip on my wild mint tea, careful to finish it while it is still hot. The relaxing effect of this simple ritual is profound. For me, wild mint tea rivals homemade chicken soup in healing and comforting power.
People employed mint for culinary and medicinal uses since Biblical times. This unassuming plant long ago found its way into classical literature. Chaucer wrote in his Roumant of the Rose:
“Then wente I forthe on my right honde,
Downe by a little path I fonde,
Of mintes full and fenell greene.”
Alluding to one of mint’s medicinal virtues, Pliny wrote: “The smell of mint doth stir up the minde and taste to a greedy desire for meat.”
For me, mint is an old and dear friend. It soothes me, settles my tummy and does more than a little to promote good health.
Were I to have only one wild herb at my disposal, I would surely choose mint.