Like many Americans, I made the mistake of thinking that I understood English cuisine because it happens in roughly the same language as my own. Of course, most English food in the US is a lot like most Thai food and most Mexican food and most every other imported cuisine. In other words, it’s nothing at all like what it claims to be. English food is not the stodge of cliché, neither endless rivers of brown nor sky-high mountains of boiled. And enough of the sniggering over spotted dick.
But while we’re thinking below the belt, there is a lot that’s hot about England. Bangers and mash with Tom Mison or Idris Elba, perhaps. But more likely horseradish, ginger beer, and Colman’s mustard. And with cool to spare and endless rain on the island, English food is fresh and green. It’s watercress and cucumbers, garden peas and broad beans, parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. But if I had to choose just one taste that is terribly, frightfully, properly as English as keeping calm and carrying on, it would be mint. Cool and reserved with a bit of cunning sharpness, it’s the Benedict Cumberbatch of the herb-with-a-hard-haitch garden.
Quite likely English mint has been here forever, or at least so long it’s difficult to pinpoint when it arrived. A thousand years ago, an Anglo-Saxon monk claimed to have eaten mint fresh from his garden every day. For centuries it popped up in cordials, sweets, or the odd soup.
And then along came the Victorians with all the clever things we still depend on today –- like trains, telephones, and vibrators –- and they covered everything edible with mint. Lamb was eternally wed to mint sauce, and, ever since, peas have revelled in a good dose of the herb valued as much for its flavor as for its ability to reduce legume-induced “wind” –- or farting as we say in my homeland. (Mint is a gastro-intestinal anti-spasmodic, which makes it the perfect antidote to all kinds of digestive disasters.)
The infamous Kendal Mint Cake became such a necessary comfort that Sir Edmund Hilary took it up Mount Everest. The Old Foodie recently catalogued just how in demand the herb has long been. Mint sandwiches anyone? Like Benedict Cumberbatch, it just turns up everywhere, even where you least expect it (sorry Star Trek fans).
Mint is supposedly the easiest thing to grow (aside from anxious and irate, both of which I excel at). And yet, when I lived in North Carolina, the scorching southern summers meant this bog-loving herb withered and rusted away. I never understood when people said to keep it in a pot to prevent it taking over because mine barely lasted past the first Pimm’s, even though I tucked it into a nice new cozy bed with the best compost American dollars could buy.
But here in England, I do container it, for both practical and aesthetic reasons. I want to take it with me if we ever get our forever garden (waving at both of you, border control and Lloyd’s Bank). But there’s also this English pressure to keep up appearances. I’ve observed that the inhabitants of this island think a nice day out is strolling around someone else’s big, beautiful garden, and plenty of people will gladly give up shed-loads of pounds to do just that on any given weekend. They seem so obsessed by the idea of growing something gorgeous that they’ve created the annual Chelsea Flower Show, a cross between New York (or London) Fashion Week and a Mad Hatter’s tea party, but for gardens.
Gardens must be attractive first and foremost, so I had to make my garden do more than just stay alive. Enter the geranium.
A few months after I arrived in the UK (with spouse, kid, dogs, and cats), we were invited to lunch in a real life English country garden. A sort of “welcome to the island” with croquet and crocus. At some point between the trifle and Stilton, I mentioned that my daughter is really keen on this gardening thing, and perhaps we should take it up to try to fit in.
The host, in typical native green-fingers style, handed me a spare pink geranium she’d just repotted. Images from Country Life and the Royal Horticultural Society jumbled anxiously in my brain with countless costume dramas and their perfectly Austen-esque gardens. Things as tidy as they are wild, the kind of controlled chaos I find in every aspect of life here (think the Tube, Dr. Who, and bouncy castles). I bought a giant planter, dug in the geranium, and surrounded it with mint. And there it was: gorgeous and useful, like a sheepdog or an Aga or a paperweight on a blustery day.
The best thing about mint is that you can always count on it. It’s everywhere. It’s prolific. Give it just a little love, show it off a bit, and it will do just about everything you need it to. Except maybe stop criminal masterminds. For that, you’ll still need Cumberbatch.
10 Ways to Make Your Life Better with Mint, Even in Autumn
1. Proper mint tea: pick leaves, boil water, steep, warm body and soul.
2. Follow the same steps but substitute “make hot cocoa” for “boil water.”
3. Toss sliced roasted beets with olive oil, mint, and goat cheese (even better, bake it on puff pastry like an autumnal winter tart).
4. Dice your glut of late tomatoes, throw in some feta, be generous with the mint, and serve in a pita.
5. Puree a handful of mint leaves with (frozen) peas; place seared scallops on top.
6. Sizzle potatoes in coconut oil or ghee with curry powder, cilantro, and mint until soft and crisp. Plunk Basmati and lime pickle from a jar on the side.
7. Stir together diced red onion, minced mint, lemon zest, a splash of white wine vinegar or cider vinegar. Marinate for an hour. Dollop on top of braised beef or beef stew to cut through the richness. Also, it looks fancy. (Trust me, this is one of those things that has actually changed my life.)
8. Combine with other herbs and add to an omelette or frittata.
9. Mojito, Pimm’s, Julep –- in spite of the cardigan, you’ll still think it’s summer.
10. Stir with yogurt to make a sauce for lamb burgers, lamb kebabs, lamb pitas, or even cold sliced lamb.
Minted Yogurt Sauce for Lamb Burgers
This recipe will make enough for 4 burgers, but you can multiply and divide as your guest list requires. It may look like more than you want, but it’s important to be generous with the sauce so it isn’t overpowered by the lamb. Think of it more as cheese and bacon than mayo and ketchup.
*Greek yoghurt (1 cup)
Mint (about 15-20 leaves -- don’t skimp, it’s meant to be intense)
Salt to taste
Wash and dry the mint, then finely mince with a sharp knife. Stir into the yoghurt. Alternatively, chop the mint in a food processor. Add the yoghurt and pulse to blend.
Season with a pinch of salt. Let the mint steep in the yogurt for at least an hour before using. Divide it among four burger buns.
*Please use Greek yoghurt, which is thicker and has a lower water content. Otherwise the sauce will create a bun as sodden as an English garden on an autumn day.