Saturday, 27 November 2010


The odour of mint evokes roast lamb and Sunday lunch.  Mint tea in the Arab desert lands is one of the most refreshing of drinks. Kendal Mint cake refreshes the weary hill walker.  The plant illustrated here has the strongest and most beautiful minty odour of any though it is not strictly speaking a mint at all.  If you live in the very north or east of France, or in parts of Provence you may not find it.  In England it exists on the North Downs and around the coasts of Cornwall. This plant is the calamint (from the Greek Kala = excellent or beautiful plus mint). 
In the 13th century a  herbalist who came from the town where I now live – Bernard de Gourdon recognised the value of this plant. The virtue of all mints in aiding digestion continues in the fashion of ‘after-eight mints’.  Three hundred years later it was incorporated  in a concoction of herbs used as a poultice to aid the cure of gunshot wounds – the ‘arquebusade’ .  
The form of the flower is different from that of the true mints in that each flower has two lips and they are gathered in rather loose groups.  In the true mints there are four small and somewhat equally sized petals arranged in dense groups or spikes.   You can see this in the mint called Pennyroyal, the other photo.  Again, except for the very north of France it is found everywhere on calcareous land.  In Britain it has become quite rare having disappeared from  most of its erstwhile localities.   It also has a powerful smell and was famed for deterring fleas from the bedding.  It is very likely that the Romans gave it the name of ‘pulegium’ for this reason (pulex = flea).  The name Penny Royal, used since the middle ages, is derived from the early French ‘puliol–réal’ which possibly means the royal flea killer! It also indicates that its medicinal virtues were known amongst the Anglo-Norman aristocracy. In French its name remains la menthe pouliot.
In fields near my home, the sheep avoid the penny-royal. Possibly the minty smell generally repels the insect predators, for these plants seem to be fairly free from such attack.
Both of these species flower late into autumn.  Other species of mint are more common and more spectacular; Apple mint, Pepper Mint (a hybrid of the next two), Water mint, and the most useful Spear mint which everyone should cultivate for mint tea and famously mint sauce, a desirable British addition to be encouraged in the French cuisine.
Pennyroyal Recipe for a weary stomach:-  It is a worthwhile tisane.  Place 30 grams (1 oz.) of the herb in a half litre of boiling water.  Add honey to taste and drink warm.

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