The Kitchen Garden
And a holiday home remedy
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas . . .
With candy canes and silver lanes aglow
— Meredith Willson
By Jan Leitschuh
For some, it’s Christmas cookies. For others, it’s eggnog, shortbread and complementary spirits.
You might still be eating Halloween candy, but for me, it’s peppermint, in all its calorie-laden glory, that represents the culinary high point of the holiday season. Peppermint ice cream. Mocha mint lattes. Chocolate mints. Peppermint bark. My Christmastime, scale-aware caution and catnip.
Starting around Halloween, you can’t escape peppermint temptation in the stores. The Holiday Mint M&Ms and candy canes beckon.
It’s easy to forget that these processed, sugary treats derive their flavor from a simple herb. Peppermint is a sterile hybrid (Mentha ×piperita) of watermint (Mentha aquatic) and spearmint (Mentha spicata). I’m also deeply fond of a very close cousin, chocolate mint.
The distinct peppery-cool flavor is a mixture of chemicals. The plant makes volatile aromatic compounds, and stores them in specialized “hairs” on its leaves. These leaves distill readily into concentrated oils.
The United States produces more than 70 percent of the world’s supply of peppermint. The Pacific Northwest leads in mint production — conditions in Washington, Oregon and Idaho are ideal for producing high quality oil. Fields of peppermint are mowed down like hay, dried, then steam-distilled to extract the oil. Peppermint flavoring is complex, a mixture of menthol with numerous other molecules.
Candy canes and peppermint patties use just a small sector of mint oil demand. The majority of mint oil (90 percent) is split equally for flavoring chewing gum and dental products (toothpaste and mouthwash). Mint oil is big business, worth approximately $200 million annually.
Peppermint is one of the oldest (and best-tasting) home remedies for indigestion. A nice cup of peppermint tea soothes winter chills, and mint is used in many sleepy-time blends. Recent research conducted at the University of Cincinnati has shown that sniffing mint improves concentration — several Japanese companies now pipe small amounts through their air conditioning systems to invigorate workers and improve productivity.
Mice and other rodents don’t care for the smell of mint. Some homeowners use it as a perfectly safe and natural pest control method. Plant mint around areas they might use to get inside, or put peppermint oil on cotton balls and place in holes and cabinets.
Even though it doesn’t produce seeds, peppermint is a prolific propagator via vegetative growth of stolons (plant biology word of the day). In the case of mint, stolons are runners just below the soil surface that can establish their own root system and plant. Because mint is very good at this, it can be quite invasive once it gets established. For your home herb garden, I would suggest growing it in a container to keep it corralled. For commercial production, certified disease-free rootstocks are used and continue producing good yields of high quality oil for about four years.
How did peppermint come to be associated with Christmas? The colors of red and green abound, and the peppermint herb itself carries half that load proudly in green. The traditional peppermint candy cane colors are, of course, red and white. Aside from peppermint’s frosty, refreshing taste, it seems that the candy cane may actually be to blame for the Yule association. According to an online story, in 1670, a choirmaster at Cologne Cathedral handed this candy out to children at their living Nativity to keep the kids occupied.
“The candy was shaped to look like a shepherd’s staff,” wrote the blogger Eric Samuelson. “The peppermint flavor probably wasn’t introduced for another 200 years. They became popular to hang on Christmas trees in the United States. So I think this is how mint became associated with Christmas. Starting with the candy cane, other mint flavored candies were introduced over the years until mint became one of the flavors of Christmas.”
To incorporate a little peppermint into your Christmas, you could put a few drops of peppermint oil in a shallow dish on a warm spot to scent a room. Perhaps give your favorite gardener a pretty pot of peppermint to refresh their gray January, or dry some of your mint to give as a gift of tea.
If you have mint in your garden, some usable leaves still might be hanging around. Peppermint extract also offers an added benefit for the holiday season. If you’ve eaten too many of those spectacular holiday treats when the baking is done, add a little of your homemade peppermint extract to a cup of tea — soothing for an upset or over-stuffed stomach.
Homemade Peppermint Extract
1 cup fresh peppermint leaves or, fresh chocolate mint leaves
1 tablespoon cacao nibs
1 cup vodka (80-100 proof)
Wash mint leaves and remove any discolored leaves. Roughly chop leaves. Bruise lightly by striking with a mallet to coax the oils from the leaves. Fill a half-pint jar loosely with chopped mint leaves and pour vodka over the leaves to completely cover, leaving at least half an inch of air at the top. Tightly seal the jar and give it a good shake before storing in a cool, dark place.
Allow the extract to steep for 3 to 4 weeks, shaking the jar every couple of days to agitate the leaves. Once desired strength has been reached, strain the leaves from the extract using a fine strainer or cheesecloth. Squeeze to get all the intense goodness. Return the extract to the jar for storage — or transfer into an attractive jar or bottle as an unusual and crafty holiday gift! PS
Jan Leitschuh is a local gardener, avid eater of fresh produce and co-founder of Sandhills Farm to Table.