Once upon a time in Greek mythology, Hades, the god of the underworld, fell in love with a nymph called Minthe. Nothing wrong in that, you might say, but wicked old Hades was already married to the goddess of the underworld, Persephone. A tumultuous domestic dispute ensued, resulting in the enraged goddess taking her revenge. These days you might expect a spurned wife to cut up her husband's best suits with a pair of scissors, or put his life up for sale on eBay, but instead Persephone transformed the nymph into a lowly plant that might be trampled underfoot for all eternity. However, Hades ensured that the plant took on a distinctly refreshing fragrance, so that whenever he passed over it the smell would remind him of his love. Minthe became mint, and the culinary landscape was changed forever.
Even if you've never tried fresh mint before, you'll most certainly know the flavour. Mint is used in toothpaste, breath freshener, lip balms, cold medicine, confectionery and chewing gum; and it's fragrance is used in soaps and shampoos, room deodorisers and bathroom cleaners. Spearmint is the most commonly used kind of mint (there are many varieties and species), but peppermint is a popular hybrid mint that's been widely used for thousands of years, especially in medicine. Not only does peppermint contain high levels of menthol, which acts as a decongestant and a mild local anaesthetic, but it's also thought to inhibit the growth of certain bacteria that cause stomach upsets. Peppermint oil is also believed to relieve the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. And it can even deter pests like rats and mice. So you have Hades to thank for that.
Of course, however effective mint might be in your medicine cabinet, it's even more accomplished in your kitchen. The cool, fresh, sweet flavour of mint leaves is perfect for making tea. In north Africa and some Arab countries, touareg tea is a delicious combination of green tea leaves, fresh mint and plenty of sugar. Mint is used in many Middle Eastern recipes, such as tabbouleh salad and yoghurt with fresh mint. Both in the Middle East and Britain, mint is eaten as a sauce and garnish with lamb. And when it comes to dessert, mint is a natural alongside dark chocolate, especially in chocolate chip mint ice cream.
But while the weather remains hot, there are few better ways to get the most out of mint than in a zesty and refreshing mint cooler. Take a handful of quartered and de-seeded limes and squeeze them into a jug. Add a large bunch of mint leaves picked from the stem and add several tablespoons of white sugar to taste. Then vigorously stir the mixture before tipping several slices of cucumber, a mound of crushed ice and a generous splash of carbonated mineral water on top. Stir and serve. It's legendary.