Originally published in Arthur No. 23 (July 2006)
The New Herbalist
By Molly Frances
“A Better Way to Cool Off”
As spring fever’s eager blossoming inevitably withers into the summertime blues, we seek quick relief among the abundance of icy blended concoctions that our advanced civilization offers us. Unfortunately, though that iced coffee provides a momentary respite on a balmy day, it will also quickly return you to a state of dehydration and turn up the heat of your internal thermostat.
The ingredient for the most soothing and refreshing of summer drinks is probably already growing in your garden. For a deeply cooling drink, brew up a tasty pot of mint tea.
A handful of the fresh herb plucked from your garden and tossed into a carafe of hot water will have you living the good life in no time at all. Be sure to include the stems of the plant. This tea may be served cold as well, but resist the temptation of pulling out your blender. Frozen drinks and ice cream will hold heat in your body and freeze digestion. To really keep extra cool this summer, avoid your freezer and enjoy your summer beverages without ice.
For a truly sublime experience, serve your friends a pot of Atay bi Na’na’. Made from boiling water, fresh mint, a small amount of green tea and honey to taste, Morocco’s most popular drink is consumed all day long. Usually served in ornate silver pots and small decorated glasses, it is customary for three servings to be offered by the host, who pours the tea from a distance of up to several feet above to aerate the brew and show off his skills. Practice this before the guests arrive.
In addition to its cooling properties, Mint tea settles the stomach and digestive disorders, eases migraines, and helps draw out infection upon first signs of a sore throat. The powerful antiviral properties of peppermint are due to its main active ingredient, menthol oil, which opens and heals sinuses, bronchial tubes, and vocal chords. It is also said to create a mentally stimulating and relaxing vibration that reduces stress and anxiety.
So what have we done to deserve this magical leaf? As the legend goes, Hades, god of the underworld, was busted by his wife Persephone in mid-frolic with a hot young wood nymph named Mintha. Persephone, who had been somewhat rudely snatched down to the underworld by Hades in the first place, was in no mood to overlook this infidelity and stomped the little nymph underfoot, transforming her into the plant we know today as Mint. In a gesture of atonement to Mintha, Hades would endow the plant with its sweet and unmistakable aroma.
Persephone may have extinguished Mintha in the flesh, but her spirit has lived on in this most promiscuous of plants. There are few lands that the wildly propagating mint has not traveled to, and few cultures that she has not seduced. As 16th century herbalist John Gerard declared, “The smelle rejoiceth the heart of man.” From Egyptian temples to Roman baths, Mint has been used for all varieties of healing and pleasure. The Pharisees even paid their taxes with it, as revealed by this scolding from Jesus: “Woe to you, Pharisees! You tithe mint and rue and every edible herb but disregard justice and the love of God.” Ouch!
While perhaps more prized for its pleasure-inducing than medicinal properties, the mint julep has been the preferred drink of the Southern Aristocracy. Accept nothing less than fresh mint, water, sugar, and Kentucky bourbon. As one of its key proponents, S.B. Buckner, Jr. warned in 1937: “A mint julep…is a ceremony… a rite that must not be entrusted to a novice, a statistician, nor a Yankee.” He instructs, “Go to a spring where cool, crystal-clear water bubbles from under a bank of dew-washed ferns. In a consecrated vessel, dip up a little water at the source. Follow the stream through its banks of green moss and wildflowers until it broadens and trickles through beds of mint growing in aromatic profusion and waving softly in the summer breezes. Gather the sweetest and tenderest shoots and gently carry them home.”
As Mintha clearly gets around, she has crossbred into hundreds of varieties including chocolate mint, basil mint, ginger mint, Persian mint, Corsican mint and Pineapple mint. All this intermingling frustrated one ninth-century monk, who declared, ” I would rather count the sparks in Vulcan’s furnace than count the varieties of mint.” The most popular forms are spearmint and peppermint, the former most often used in cooking but the latter more medicinally potent.
As Buckner proclaimed, “bury your nose in the mint, inhale a deep breath of its fragrance and sip the nectar of the gods.”