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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Mint Blossom Honey, Ho Chi Minh City,Vietnam

Mints (Lamiacae Mentha) are part of a (very) large family (Lamiacae) of mostly melliferous (i.e. nectar producing) aromatic herbs, some small shrubs and a few trees (e.g. Teak (Lamiacae Tectona grandis)). It seems that all of the “staple” herbs belong to this family: basil (Lamiacae Ocimum), oregano (Lamiacae Origanum majorana, Origanum vulgare), rosemary (Lamiacae Rosmarinus officinalis), sage (Lamiacae Salvia), thyme (Lamiacae Thymus vulgaris), lemon balm (Lamiacae Melissa officianlis), and lavender (Lamiacae Lavandula angustifolia), to name a few.

Mint is named for the nymph, Minthe, who was seduced by the Greek god of the underworld, Pluto. As the story goes Pluto’s wife, in a jealous rage, trampled the nymph to dust, and Pluto turned her into a mint plant, an herb that becomes more aromatic when trampled on.

Mints, like most of the Lamiacae family, are almost exclusively perennial, are widely distributed throughout the world and thrive in many environments. On the whole, however, mints tend to prefer wet soils and partial sunlight. Mint is native to Europe and many varieties are found in the Mediterranean region. It is currently cultivated in Italy, the US (principally in Oregon, Indiana, Idaho, Ohio and Michigan), Japan, China, Australia and the UK (among other places).

It may go without saying but mint is generally easy to grow. The best way to propagate it is by using plant cuttings (i.e. put a mint cutting in water. roots will develop after a time and then you can plant the rooted cutting in soil). If you’ve ever had mint growing in your garden you will know that it are hardy, fast growing, extends its reach through runners, and has a tendency to become invasive.

spearmint with blossoms
There are many types of mint and classifying them is somewhat of a challenge. They cross breed with abandon, even from one species to another, and this results in many unique cultivars and a confusing roster of “scientific” names for the same cultivar. An example of crossbreeding is peppermint (Mentha piperita), which is a naturally occurring mint hybrid: it is a cross between watermint (Mentha aquatic) and spearmint (Mentha spicata).

To make it a bit more confusing, some plants are called “mint,” mostly because they have an appearance or scent reminiscent of mint, but do not belong to the mint family. In addition, the name used for a mint may also be used for another, completely different plant. An example is ‘Vietnamese mint’, which can refer to Lamiacae Elsholtzia ciliate, a member of the mint family or to Persicaria odorata, a member of the Polygonaceae family that contains smartweeds and pinkweeds.

Mint has been used throughout history for a variety of things; there is quite a bit of documentation about how the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used mint, mostly peppermint. It can be found in food, medicines and other products. It is used in teas, drinks, jellies, syrups, candies (i.e. mints), liqueurs and ice cream. Mint sauce goes hand in hand with some lamb dishes. It has also been used medicinally to treat stomach ailments and chest pains, and via aromatherapy to treat nausea. Mint essential oils are used as flavorings in breath fresheners, drinks, mouth washes, toothpaste, and chewing gums, and in air fresheners. It is also used as an ingredient in insecticides against wasps, hornets, ants, fleas and cockroaches. Its insect repelling qualities have also been put to use by planting it as a companion plant next to other plants that are susceptible to insect attack. In past times, mint was strewn across dirt floors to freshen the air as people walked on it.

While mint is often in the mix in wild flower honeys, it is rarely so abundant to be the sole floral source as a monofloral honey. Therefore, mint honey is generally a side product of large scale mint cultivation that is done for its essential oils (mints began to be cultivated on a large scale in the 1800s). To find mint honey, therefore, you should look to places that are known for their mint oil production and cultivate it on a large scale. The most commercially cultivated mints are peppermint (Mentha piperita), native spearmint (Mentha spicata), Scotch spearmint (Mentha gracilis), commint (Mentha arvensis) and apple mint (Mentha suaveloens).

My mint honey, courtesy of my friend Barbara who recently returned from a trip to Vietnam, is from a local supermarket in Ho Chi Minh City. It is packaged and distributed by Fire Phoenix and was collected in May of this year. I tried to find out more information about Fire Phoenix, mint cultivation in Vietnam and Vietnamese mint honey, and came up empty handed. So, I don’t have much information about this honey. In particular, I don’t know what kind of mint was the source of this honey, or even if the flower source was mint at all (and not a member of the Polygonaceae family!). The label just says it is “pure mint blossoms honey.” However, Vietnam is a producer of spearmint essential oils, so there is a good chance that this is spearmint honey.

Mint Blossom Honey
It is a medium thick, clear, yellow/orange honey that has a meady, somewhat fermented fragrance, and a mellow, somewhat musky flavor that subtly reminds me of a yeasty, white wine. It is not overly sweet, and doesn’t have a complicated taste. There is no after taste. It has the right consistency to be a good choice to drizzle over thick, plain yogurt, and would work well with creamy, milk cheeses. It would also do well in herbal teas, and hot cereals. I’m not sure where you can find it. You just may have to take a trip to Vietnam and hunt for it in local supermarkets! 

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