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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Fresh as Mint

Our garden's first mint shoots of the season...

And the Spring arose on the garden fair,
Like the Spirit of Love felt everywhere;
And each flower and herb on Earth's dark breast
Rose from the dreams of its wintry rest.

--- The Sensitive Plant, Percy Bysshe Shelley

The weather here in Toronto has been exceedingly pleasant of late. Spring has quickened the dormant life energies in the earth, and the sun’s growing light lengthens the days. Persephone has returned from the shadowy realm of Hades, her mother Demeter rejoices and paints Gaia with the most exotic adornments.

Yesterday, I stepped out to inspect the small kitchen garden plot we have running the length of one side of our home. I was so excited by what I saw that I ran to fetch my camera. The first tender shoots of our mint patch had appeared!

Mint is my favourite of all the herbs and not without good reason. It is a universal ingredient in Greek food and can be added to practically any dish as ingredient or ornament. Mint is for me an inspiration and not merely a plant, and hopefully, I will pass a measure of my enthusiasm for this herb on to you, my reader.

In Greek Mythology, there is a species of nymph who are known as Naiads and their existence is bound to flowing freshwaters; every spring, fountain and mountain brook has its Naiad. As the 19th Century Romantic poet P.B. Shelley illustrates in the poem Arethusa, a Naiad is the “shepherdess” of the inland streams and water sources of her locality.

Minthe (Μίνθη) was a Naiad, and it is from her name that most European languages derive their names for the sweetest smelling of all the herbs. However, according to one ancient Roman scholar, the Greeks switched names for “minthe” just before the first Century of our era, preferring to call it ‘edyosmon’ (ηδυόσμον), ostensibly because of its sweet-smelling fragrance."Dyosmo" remains as the name for this herb in Modern Greek.

According to the myth, Minthe (who was as beautiful as only a nymph could be) attracted the amorous attention of Hades, god of the Underworld, during one of his scandalous forays above ground. But, before Hades could consummate his seduction of Minthe, his jealous wife Persephone caught up with the philanderer and turned his latest paramour into the familiar herb. Since he could not undo Persephone’s spell and restore Minthe, Hades bestowed the gift of a wonderful fragrance to the former Naiad as a consolation for her troubles. This tale is likely a clue as to why a wild species of mint 'calaminthe' (καλαμίνθη) was one of the ingredients that went into the kykeon - the sacred draught of the Eleusinian Mysteries, which were initiation ceremonies held annually as part of the cult worship of Demeter and her daughter, Persephone.

When they were not swigging mint as part of some mystical potion, the ancient Greeks also used it to flavour their wine and foods. Furthermore, we are told that during the time of Themistocles (c. 524–459 BC), men at Athens were fond of wearing sprigs of mint behind their ear as some kind of fashion statement when they congregated for Assembly. Yet, there were also proscriptions against mint consumption, one of the most notable being Hippocrates’ warning that mint was not to be consumed by epileptics.

Today, mint is to be found everywhere in Greece where it is used in salads, grilled dishes, soups, yogurt sauces, legume stews and cheese pastries. So, if you are ever in Greece and are looking for mint, just be sure to ask for some ‘dyosmo’, pronounced “thee-OZ-mo”. And, if you ever happen to be wandering about the Greek countryside, keep an eye out for the naiad Minthe, she is still out there…

Now, I think it is time I made some fresh mint tea with some of the leaves I harvested from the garden, sweetened with a teaspoon of Greek thyme honey.

Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.


Lulu said...

Great article, Sam, I really enjoyed reading it. I can still remember how impressed I was with the flavor of mint in Greek foods when I first tasted it. I have it all over my garden now, and yes, it's definitely at its freshest and prettiest right now in the springtime.

Peter M said...

Make a notch for Rigani for me but mint's cool too (pun intended).

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Lulu said...

LOL, Peter! Rigani was the other fresh herb that totally bowled me over when I was introduced to fresh herbs in Greek food. Nothing like that oregano powder my mom used to sprinkle on pizza.

Ivy said...

Lovely post Sam. This is my favourite herb and there is a lot of mint in Cypriot cuisine. I recently remembered mint tea and drunk some, as we used to drink it a lot in Cyprus. My mother used to give it to us as a medicine, good for indigestion, tummy ache, headache,colic pain and it stops hiccough (lol).

Laurie Constantino said...

Lucky you that your mint is already coming up! It is a wonderful herb, and is a great food enhancer.

Lina said...

I love mint! I wish I had an herb garden!