Thursday, 31 July 2014

In the kitchen with catnip

Meet George
This is George. George isn’t my cat; he lives with a neighbour but treats my house and garden as a kind of holiday home. He comes around a few times a week, follows us around the house for a bit, insists on a belly-rub or two, then goes home again.

This time of year, though, there's another activity to George’s repertoire: a roll-around session in the catnip. This particular activity brings about a strange change of behaviour in George. 

He gets a glazed-over look in his eye, becomes a bit more playful than usual, then promptly falls into a deep slumber. It’s like watching the feline version of the cult classic film Reefer Madness

George stalking the catnip
So, what’s this got to do with food? Well, George’s rompings in the catnip bed always release a herbal aroma that I associate with Moroccan souks. (Come on, I mean mint here, people!)

And, sure enough, while British people just use catnip (botanical name Calamintha nepeta, called calamint, among other names) as a standard garden plant – and a stuffing for cat toys – in Morocco it’s used used in herbal tea, the dried leaves mixed with dried mint and, sometimes, rose petals.

George in post-catnip state of bliss
It’s also used as a culinary herb in other ways. In her authoritative book on the subject, The Food of Morocco, Paula Wolfert has a recipe for harcha, a kind of flatbread from Morocco's Atlas Mountains that’s flavoured with tea made from the dried leaves of the manta (calamint) plant.

It turns out that calamint is also used in Italian cooking, particularly in Tuscany, where it’s known as nepetella or mentuccia. The  leaves are used to flavour fresh porcini in late summer and early autumn and, earlier in the season, courgettes and artichokes.

Calamint - or catnip if you're a cat
Thanks to clever George, I’ve taken to using my calamint in cooking too. I tear a few fresh leaves into sautéed courgettes and add a squeeze of lemon. Bliss. Not quite a blissful as George after catnip, mind you, but pretty damned good.

Try this at home
While we don’t have any recipes that use calamint in our recipe database, we do have lots of recipes made with herbs, including mint and oregano, which calamint has a similar flavour to. Try these: