From ice cream to eggs to lamb, this herb does more than any other.
A herb that ranks above all: mint gets the prize for the most versatile
The merits of mint-chocolate-chip ice cream became apparent to me early on. For starters, it was there. And it was there because I was typically the only consumer of the stuff. Whether I chose mint, or mint chose me, is impossible to say. During the summers, when the freezer was as full of frozen novelties as the house was full of sweaty, sunburned kids, cold treats had a high turnover rate. Even steadfast Neapolitan ice cream, with its bland, symmetrical stripes of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry that all tasted vaguely alike and had the platonic pallor of a vintage photograph, disappeared more quickly than mint.
One afternoon, at Skaket Beach, my cousin Rema came running towards me, her face hidden behind a cotton candy cloud of ice cream floating on a sugar cone. It was flecked with red and white shards of candy cane. "Peppermint stick!" she announced. "You'll love it." I took a bite, made a face. Sweet and pink, it lacked the solemnity and sophistication of mint chocolate chip.
Mint chocolate did not remain shunned by my peers forever, though. We grew up and they saw the light, leaving behind the rainbow sherbet of our prepubescent dark ages. Mint - as a herb and as a flavouring - is about as widely adored and versatile as it gets. Who doesn't like it? Unlike parsley and coriander, the mint family has universal appeal, greeting our palates daily: in our mouthwash, in the garnish on our mezze, in the wrapped piece of hard candy we snag off a colleague's desk.
I've spent years trying to replicate the most glorious ice cream I've ever had, which was an outrageously expensive scoop of mint chocolate chip made fresh that day and served in a dixie cup at a tiny coffee shop in Santa Fe. The owner had made it by steeping fresh spearmint leaves in cream - a revelation to my taste buds after a lifetime of ice cream flavoured with peppermint oil or extract - and then she had stirred in a generous amount of chocolate that had been shaved into dreamy, delicate flecks that crackled subtly and melted away with each lick. I got to work at home, growing spearmint in my garden - luckily, it's an invasive weed and spreads quickly - and grating bricks of bittersweet chocolate against a box grater to approximate the texture. A friend suggested I steep a handful of baby spinach leaves in the hot custard base to impart a green colour naturally and it worked. (And no, you can't taste the spinach.)
There is a dizzying number of mint varietals out there, and each one smells more fragrant and sounds more poetic than the one before it, such as apple mint, pineapple mint, orange mint, chocolate mint and water mint.
Apart from peppermint, spearmint is the most widely used species of mint, and the one most commonly used in the kitchen. It's the most versatile, and it's also my favourite. Like the dedicated addict that I am, I use spearmint toothpaste, chew spearmint gum, float mint leaves in my water, tea, and, most recently, in a beautiful little soup I found on the blog Eating Pleasure (eatingpleasure.blogspot.com). The recipe calls for poaching two eggs in garlic oil-scented chicken broth, and then scattering mint leaves on the steaming eggs and broth before serving. Mint also pairs with cooling watermelon - or pomegranate, or figs - and snowy feta cheese. Spring peas and spring lamb would be lost without mint, as would chutneys and countless raspberry desserts. And anyone who has travelled through the Middle East knows of the verdantly refreshing mint lemonade available in nearly every cafe, large or small.
Mint's Mediterranean origins were not lost on the ancient Greeks, who rubbed mint leaves on to their dining tables to symbolise warmth and welcome. They loved the herb so much that they named it after the mythical Minthe, or Menthe, a river nymph who had attracted the eye of Hades and was subsequently turned into a weed by his wife Persephone in an effort to divert his affections and have her trampled to pieces. Hades found out what his wife had done, and though he could not break the spell, he gave Minthe a gorgeous fragrance so that he would always be able to smell and protect her.
The after-dinner mint is near and dear to my heart. I mean that literally because I have a handful of them in my shirt pocket as I type. Also known as butter mints, they are soft to the bite and dissolve quickly in the mouth. They were the first confection I remember being enamoured by. One evening, at a family-owned restaurant, I caught one of my sisters spooning them into her mouth straight out of the bowl on the hostess stand. She wasn't old enough to know any better. But I knew then that our obsession was genetic, and that denying it would be unnatural.
Haters may find them chalky and reminiscent of petrified toothpaste, but to us, they're peppermint-perfumed bliss.
Over the years, I've discovered Arnott's Mint Slice, Leda Minton Biscuits and Bendicks Chocolate Mint Crisps, Frango mints, Pan Drops (which are like Mentos Scotch mints) and Nestle's Aero mint (which was my snack of choice while in transit at Heathrow Airport). Certain members of our household have been known to rip through sleeves of Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies, inhale Pepperidge Farm mint Milanos and hoard bags of Andes mints, with their alternating semisweet chocolate and Kelly-green fondant filling. York peppermint patties, which are best straight from the freezer, produce "an audible sigh when broken in half", as Steve Almond writes in Candyfreak, and Junior Mints are still, to me, the only acceptable treat to buy at a movie theatre.
But my ultimate childhood weakness was the After Eight, which I discovered after getting lost trying to find my way out of a cousin's house, and finding, instead, the cavernous majlis. There was a box of After Eights on the coffee table. I slipped one from its papery sheath, lost myself in its slenderness and snap, and was sent home with cramps.