Saturday, 31 March 2012

Get it minted

Journeying through the English countryside last weekend, one of the most adorably seasonal sights was that of the year's earliest lambs in the fields.

You'd have to have a heart of stone not to think: 'Ahhh'.

But you might also find yourself thinking: 'Mint sauce, mint sauce'.

Because of course, that is what we Brits do with mint - eat it with lamb.

It's a culinary combination that the French notoriously pour scorn on. But that scorn doesn't mean that it doesn't work - and the mint also gloriously compliments the new potatoes and the fresh garden peas that constitute a really traditional English summer roast lamb dinner.

Indeed, with Easter just around the corner, roast lamb with mint sauce is what many people in the UK will be enjoying at the heart of their festive feast.

The perfection of the meeting of those ingredients can mean that we easily lose sight of other combinations that work just as well.

It was only a couple of years ago, for instance, while in Italy that I realised how gloriously the sharpness of lemon marries with the sweetness of lamb.

And lamb and mint are such an iconic combination that perhaps it sometimes means we also forget that mint can compliment a wide variety of other flavours.

Indeed, perhaps my mintiest memory came in Perpignan one Easter a few years ago, when we wandered into the weekly Sunday market.

We entered from the 'African quarter' to be met by the most astonishing scent from the vast, vast piles of the herb that were piled up for sale. It was intoxicating.

So okay, we might also think of mint as the basis for a tisane, with its ability to aid digestion, and as a friend to dark chocolate - particularly in the form of after-dinner mints - but it's potential doesn't end there.

Actually, the French may well be snobbish about mint, but it's hard not to wonder if that is, in part at least, a response to it being loved not just by the old enemy across the Channel, but also by the indigenous people's of the north African parts of its own former empire?

In Italian cookery, the Romans are fond of it - as are the Sicilians.

In Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, Elizabeth David points out that mint is related to basil and, where dried versions of the latter are required - particularly in North African cuisine - then the former can be substituted.

Noting that the Italians, like the English, love sage - and use it in large amounts - Mrs D observes that she is not such a fan and, indeed, suggests using mint instead.

In the rather fabulous and utterly fascinating Flavour Thesaurus – and here I must thank George for this unexpected present – Niki Segnit illustrates how mint can combine with a wide range of other ingredients, including chilli and oily fish.

So with that in mind, I tried a little experiment this evening.

Picking up a little salmon fillet on Broadway Market this morning, I marinaded it in some dried chilli, olive oil and lemon for a couple of hours, before heating a pan and popping it in with the marinade ingredients.

To that was added a little Maldon and some drizzling Balsamico – well, you have to have salt and vinegar with your fish – then the pan was lidded, the heat turned down and it was left for about 10 minutes.

I served it was sliced carrot and courgette, cooked in a little butter, olive oil and minimal water, and some basmati rice.

And then the big experiment. Serving up, I provided a small dish of dried mint as an option to try.

The Other Half tried some; I tried some.

It really does work and adds a nice little contrast to the sweetness of the fish and the heat of the chilli.

When trying, I also sprinkled some on my rice – and that was particularly pleasant.

Indeed, it made me think of Risotto! Risotto!, where Valentina Harris described the pleasure of perhaps the most simple risotto of all, a parsley one.

And it struck me that one made with really good, fresh mint would work just as well. I shall have to try it sometime, when my own crop of mint is producing copious amounts for harvesting.

But mint seems to be a perfect example of how we can become so used to an ingredient employed in a traditional way, that we don't stop to think how else it might be used.


  1. cod'ead 'ere

    Mint also works well in ice cream.

    In my not very humble opinion, there are really only two flavours of ice cream that are worth considering: lemon (that's lemon ice cream, not a sorbet) and coffee (again real ice cream not some Jen & Berry's concoction). Finely chopped, fresh mint leaves just give an added lift.

  2. I love that as an idea - cheers, Dave.