Mint – a diversity in flavour!
Mint – a simple word that evokes a range of flavours but covers a myriad of tastes. Use the word ‘Mint’ and we all ‘taste’ a particular flavour that we can associate with ‘chewing gum’, tooth paste, tea, mouthwash, sauce and lollies. All similar but with quite different aromas. Last month we looked at the history and culinary uses of mint and mint products. This month we will look at some of the different flavours and use of mint.
As mentioned last month there are about 20 species of mint and a number of hybrids. From these there are in excess of 500 cultivars and several ‘mints’ that have a common name such as xxxx mint but are in a different genus or even family. One of the most common of these is ‘Catmint’ which is the common name for plants in the genus Nepeta. This is a group of low growing shrubs with attractive mauve or white flowers and a pungent aroma that is liked by cats. Then there is Californian Mint (Clinopodium douglasii), Stonemint (Cunila origanoides), Israeli or Emperor’s Mint (Micrmeria sp.) and Native (Australian) Mint which refers to members of the genus Prostanthera. These small to large shrubs have white or mauve flowers and a really pungent fragrance that is useful in Aussie native cooking. All these are members of the same family, Lamiaceae and show similar characteristics in oil content, plant structure and medicinal uses.
With so many different varieties and flavours it is hard to collate them into related groups. There are five main flavour groups and the rest: Common Mint, Spearmint, Peppermint, Fruit Mints, Menthol. They are based on the dominant ‘scent’ in the foliage and is more subjective than analytical. They groups aren't aligned with species as there are some species with cultivars that are fruity and others that are pepperminty. The ‘others’ include cultivars that are named after their appearances or place of origin.
Common Mint covers those varieties with that classic mint flavour that we get in the traditional Aussie mint sauce. Popular Australian varieties in this group include Common Mint, Curly Mint, Chef’s Mint and Old Fashioned Mint. They all have a rich soft flavour that is low in the pepper and menthol components. The next group is Spearmint which is named after the long spear shaped foliage. There are few cultivars and some seed grown types that have small round leaves but with the characteristic fresh and fruity spearmint flavour that we have come to associate with chewing gum or green gel-lollies. Cultivars include Moroccan Mint, Spearmint and Spanish Mint.
Peppermints have the classic peppery flavour with overtones of menthol and fruit. Some varieties are really peppery and are almost ‘hot’ to eat. The hot white candy is made from concentrated oil from this variety. The plants are often truly herbaceous and in really cold will die right back over winter. The leaves are usually small and round with a deep green to purple coloring. Classic cultivars are Peppermint, Chocolate Mint, Native (Australian) Peppermint and White Mint.
The Fruit Mint group is quite diverse from citrus to berry and everything in between. Lemon, Lime and Orange Mint are all cultivars with tastes that reflect their common names. They are often grouped together as the ‘Citrus Mints’ and make excellent teas. Then there is Berries and Cream Mint which has attractive dark colored foliage and a sweet berry fragrance. Apple and Green Apple Mint have a delightful green apple flavour and soft light green foliage. Finally there is Pineapple Mint which has variegated foliage and a soft Pineapple Flavour.
The Menthol group is those that have that strong nose clearing fragrance that we associate with menthol and camphor. It is a small group and covers varieties like Menthol Mint, Corsican Mint, Horse Mint and Mentha diemenica. Basil Mint sits across a couple of these with its distinctive Basil flavour. Many people can’t separate the flavour from true Sweet Basil. The main notes are very similar to Basil but it lacks the high complex notes of traditional Basil. There are several varieties that are named after their appearance such as Silver Mint (has long silver green foliage) and Buddleja Mint (short Buddleja shaped flowers).
Whichever variety is being used the flavour will be strong and have both medicinal and culinary uses. Medicinally, mint is best used as an essential oil with the benefits and fragrance being governed by the mix and ratios of the constituent oils. Most common oils are menthol, menthone, methyl acetate, pulegone, limomene, pinene and p-cymene. Like most essential oils, mint oil can vary greatly in fragrance and usage with minor changes in the ratios of these oils or even the orientation of the oil molecules. It is a case of ‘oils ain’t oils’.
Mint really is a kitchen essential herb that has a thousand uses in the home. The fragrance is great for use in homemade cleaning (personal and general) agents. The Pennroyals are great as natural deterrents for small rodents and ants. Mint is also a must have for any desert chef. The main forms for the kitchen are the spearmint and common mint groups. Nothing enhances a fruit salad or desert sauce than a handful of freshly chopped mint leaves. Added fresh to any salad or raw vegetable dish, the mint will uplift the dish. It will give it an added zest that is quite refreshing. Added to sauces and dressing the mint will enhance other light herbs like coriander, basil, lime and dill.
Finally most forms of mint make excellent drinks. Hot as fresh and tasty health alternatives to tea and coffee. Lightly chilled with the addition of some Stevia and or lime/lemon zest it makes an excellent summer drink. Mix with crushed ice and a dash of tequila for a yummy home made margarita. Make an extra strong tea, add in some Stevia, a tiny bit of saffron and some lemon juice then chill. Mix 20/80 with sparkling mineral water to create a healthy soft drink for the kids.
Which ever way mint is taken or used it is a remarkable fresh and healthy herb that has been a part of the human diet for hundreds or even thousands of years. Try some new or old fashioned ways of using it in your diet.