By Sally Wenczel
“Hot lavender, mints, savoury, marjoram / The marigold, that goes to bed wi' the sun.” Shakespeare’s description of summer triggers my sensory memory: fragrant, oil filled leaves cooking in the hot sun, the kids sampling lemon balm and mint in one green-mouth-filled, smiling bite, proud that they know how to identify one leaf from another in the herb garden. A brush of a leg or stroke of the hand and you’re wearing summer’s minty perfume.
Tis the season of hot lavender and mints, and making memories with friends and family over long set tables. Fresh, cooling mint harvested straight from the garden is chopped into grandmother’s cucumber salad or muddled in sweet, cold lemonade. Lee Sharkas and his crew at Shanendoah chop loads of mint every day to keep up with demand for guests’ favorite dishes. The general manager and head chef at the club’s fine dining restaurant said that tabbouleh is his favorite minty Shenandoah dish and a favorite of the guests as well. “Fresh Mint is a must in tabbouleh,” said Sharkas.
Mint was finding its way onto our plates and into our goblets many generations ago. The art of cooking evolved right along side the art of herbalism over the centuries and according to people’s needs. Middle Eastern culture from the 7th century onward translated and preserved precious volumes of Greek medical knowledge, thereby plunging itself into a unique period of scientific breakthroughs that shaped modern culture today. What we call “holistic medicine” or “alternative medicine” in our modern world was just medicine to our ancestors and mint certainly had its place in the family garden and on the apothecary shelf.
Ever farther back in time, mint was probably at the table of Jesus. It was definitely grown and used in the lands of St. Matthew, as scripture says:
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!
For ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and
Have omitted the weightier matters of the law,
Judgement, mercy and faith.
I’d love to see a table setting from that age and to hear the conversations filling the room, the garden just outside the kitchen, the smell of herbs and oils in the medicine cabinet. Essential herbal oils were widely used and prized in the days of old and are still today. The small bottle of mint essential oil I keep inside my purse has saved me a few times, when a sinus headache strikes; I just use a drop on my temples or the back of my neck and sweet cooling relief! But be careful not to get it in your eyes! Just a deep inhale of the refreshing oil or a little dab under my nose helps me to stay awake while driving long distances in the night. But remember, before you start bathing yourself in mint oil be sure to check for any contraindications with any health conditions.
As you probably have heard, mint has the ability to spread and take over a garden. It’s best to plant it in a container or buy a large clay pot and bury the pot in the ground, where it can be nestled amongst your flower garden or other herbs. Unless you want a mint farm, then just let it go!
Right in the middle of mint farm country a few hours north, is the St. Johns Mint Festival. It happens in August and I absolutely cannot wait to check it out. There’s a quilt show, beauty queens, a parade, live music and Minty The Green Bear, according to the Facebook page. Some of the large mint farms in the surrounding area are open for tours during the festival. A friend of mine, who has attended, said the whole county smells of mint in the warm summer months. I’m already planning my weekend!
2 cups crushed ice
4 cups water
2 large lemons (or limes), washed, unpeeled, cut into small pieces and seeds removed
Juice of one large lemon
1 bunch fresh mint leaves, stems removed. Set some aside for garnish.
1 cup sugar
Add all of the ingredients to the pitcher of a high quality blender. Cover and push blend or liquefy until you achieve the desired drink consistency. Pour lemonade into a serving pitcher through a mesh strainer. Add fresh mint leaves to the pitcher for garnish. Cover and refrigerate until you are ready to serve.
Yogurt Cucumber Dip:
2 cups plain yogurt
1 large cucumber, seeded and grated
10 large leaves of mint, minced
1 clove of garlic (crushed)
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp cumin powder
Mix all and refrigerate for at least an hour.