Monday, October 19, 2009

Why Mint With Lamb?

I am going to reverse the usual order of things today, and begin with the Quotation for the Day because when I came across it it took my fancy, and it also indicated a serious omission in blog topics to date. It is from the American writer Charles Farrar Browne (1834-1867), and goes ….

“My wife is one of the best wimin on this Continent, altho' she isn't always gentle as a lamb with mint sauce.”

Over the course of almost four years of week-daily blogging I have made numerous references to mint and have featured a number of historic menus in which mint sauce appears as the inevitable accompaniment to lamb or mutton – yet I have never explored mint sauce itself, nor given a recipe for it.

Why is it that we have mint with lamb, apples with pork, cranberries with turkey, and lemon with fish and so on? How did the traditions of these very specific fruits with very specific meats begin?

In medieval times, there was no clear distinction between ‘sweet’ and ‘savoury’ dishes, because sugar was a very expensive imported luxury used – generally speaking – in very small amounts, in the way of a spice. From today’s perspective, many individual medieval dishes seemed to contain a bewildering mixture of ingredients - fruit, meat, fish, almond milk, eggs, spices, sugar and so on. By the standards and beliefs and agricultural conditions of the time however, there was nothing random about the ingredient selections.

The prevailing medical doctrine of the time (the Humoral Theory) influenced which foods should be mixed for a particular person, event, time of the year etc. Of course, in the days before refrigeration and canning, local eating and seasonal eating were the norm, so whatever herbs, fruits or vegetables happed to be ripe and ready on your farm at lamb or pig-killing time were the ones you ate with your meat, and learned to associate and expect with that meat. It is also reasonable to assume, as human taste buds have not changed over the centuries, that our medieval ancestors enjoyed the same interplay of sweet - salty - sour – bitter - and umami that we do today, and developed their recipes accordingly.


There are other forces at work too. One theory of the development of the lamb/mint association suggests that it is a legacy of the roast lamb and bitter herbs eaten by the eaten by the Israelites on the eve of their Exodus from Egypt.

I have not explored the historic connection between lamb and mint exhaustively – this is a daily blog, after all, not a daily treatise - but interestingly it seems that pig was just as likely to be sent to the table with mint in the early eighteenth century - in its own right, not necessarily only when it was sent as counterfeit lamb, as in the following rather fun recipe from The House-keepers Pocket-Book (1760).


To Roast the Hind Quarter of a Pig, Lamb-fashion.
At the Time of Year when House-Lamb s very dear, take the Hind Quarter of a large Pig, take off the skin, and roast it, and it will eat like Lamb, with Mint-Sauce, or with a Sallad, or Seville Oranges.

We must have a recipe for the sauce, of course, and this one shows that some things don’t change at all!


Mint Sauce.
Wash your mint perfectly clean from grit or dirt, then chop it very fine, and put to it vinegar and sugar.
The Accomplished Housekeeper and Universal Cook, by T.Williams (1717)

20 comments:

neil said...

I've often wondered about the particular association of lamb with mint. My intuition goes in a slightly different direction though.

Lamb is a fairly recent phenomonen, much like chicken, in so far as in medieval times it wasn't as widely available as now. Much more likely was a joint of mutton, as the beast would have already served its productive purpose.

Anyone who tastes mutton will never forget its very strong, almost overpowering flavour, which is not appealing to everyone. One way around this would be to serve a strongly flavoured accompaniment, mint fits the bill well here as does another less well known classic, caper sauce.

As lamb grew to be more popular, even though its taste isn't as strong, mint sauce continued in its traditional role. My mum served this sauce when I was young, but from my own point of view, mint sauce ruins a good joint of lamb, especially new season or the more tender milk-fed.

Anyway, it's just a thought, wouldn't have a clue if it's right or not, it just seems to make some sense to me.

Petra said...

I'm doing some research in food history in Germany and so I really wonder why british people chose mint sauce with meat. In german speaking countries never existed a preference for this special combination as far as I know. Instead I found a lot of old recipes with anchovy sauce to be served with meat (beef, lamb, pork ...)

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Now, you've got me wanting to do a taste test. I can absolutely imagine pork with mint.

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Neil - good idea, and it does make sense. Certainly the vinegary base would deflect the strong mutton flavour as much as the mint.
Petera: it does seem to be a British phenomenon, doesnt it?
T.W. Do try it and post about pork and mint, wont you? How about another Retro Cake too? I'll see what I can find to tempt you with>

Petra said...

I just found an interesting explanation from Alan Davidson in "The Oxford Companion to Food" (great book) which says "Lamb is a fatty meat, and most cuisines recognize the need for some kind of acid ingredient or sauce to 'cut' this. In England, mint sauce, composed of chopped fresh mint, sugar, and vinegar, has been the accepted accompaniement for roast lamb since the mid-19th century." Apple sauce to pork should follow the same thought (sour apples).

Michel said...

Well just happen to stumble across your blog, but here is a theory for you as to why the English (Not British) used mint sauce with their lamb:
In medieval time the main export product for the English was wool and created large revenue for the English to sustain various wars that they had at that time which was probably the French, again...

But their valued wool makers was being consumed by the locals and naturally limited their export of wool, so the law makers at that time decided to make it law that it would be illegal to consume lamb without eating it with mint sauce, which was a far cry from a taste that was acquired at that time and gave the meat a foul taste which they hoped would discourage the eating of lamb, they did not ban the eating of lamb all together as the royals and upper class English was not prepared to give up that right just yet.

Theory has it that the law is still in the books today although not practiced.

Anyway, how true this is I don’t know but that’s the theory, I am just a South African that hates the taste of mint on my lamb or anything else for that matter so could believe that there might be some truth in there somewhere :)

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Michel - great story and great theory! I love it (I also love mint with lamb, myself - my English heritage I suppose).

Tom said...

May be a little late on this one but I think there is some truth in Michael's theory.

I'm researching some lamb facts at the moment and that's one I came across. If I can find the specific dates and facts I will post them for you!

It is something to do with discouraging the consumption of lamb by making it law for it to only be consumed with bitter herbs.

Tom said...

"Mint sauce became the ‘essential’ accompaniment to roast lamb in the Britain thanks to Queen Elizabeth I. To stop her subjects eating lamb and mutton (and help the wool industry), she decreed that the meat could only be served with bitter herbs. Enterprising cooks discovered that mint made the meat taste better, not worse"

I knew I'd find it!

The Old Foodie said...

Thanks Tom!
I love these ongoing debates - the more folk that weigh in the better. I would love to be able to find that actual royal edict.
If you find anything else out, please let us know.
Janet

BJ said...

I read with interest all of the theories about mint and lamb, as just last night at dinner a group of us had a discussion about this very topic--while we enjoyed a wonderful meal of lamb. I too had learned, in a British history lecture in 1967, that the reason for mint being eaten with lamb was the result of a royal edict put in place to reduce the consumption of lamb and thereby support the wool industry.

The Old Foodie said...

H BJ
I will look into this story, but it sounds like urban myth to me. I will be sure to let you know if I turnup anything!

Anonymous said...

I can't offer a cite, but years ago I read a nice thick, scholarly history of food and cooking and it had essentially the same idea. If I recall correctly, no proper English gentleman would eat peasant food like mint jelly so they were discouraged too. The details may be off, by everyone, but there is a core truth in the mix.
JiM

The Old Foodie said...

Thanks, Jim. I know the feeling of not being able to find and cite something you read ages ago that seemed interesting but not worth keeping - then not being able to find it again!

Steve Atkinson said...

I believe Tom is right. I read the same thing in a book by anthropologist, naturalist, historian, Peter Farb in his book: Consuming Passion---The Anthropology of Eating, published in 1980. This is an amazing book about the cultural and historical reasons for eating and cooking the way we do.

The Old Foodie said...

Hi Steve (and Tom) I must now see if I can find any hard evidence of this theory! There must be documentation somewhere, if it is true.

Anonymous said...

Hi
The actual reason that mint is eaten with lamb is very simple. Lamb fat Lamb is higher in polyunsaturated fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid than other red meats. This means that lamb fat congeals faster than other red meat fats. So when we eat lamb we often get congealed fatty deposits in our mouth or on our plate. Mint sauce with its high acidity cuts through the fat and gives a refreshing cleanser making a more palatable experience.

bagelnosher said...

So interesting! It's Pesach time -- Passover -- here in Israel, and a group of us were talking about roast lamb, which is indeed a traditional food at this time of year. Someone mentioned serving it with mint, and others became unglued, having never heard of such a thing: mint with lamb?? Not me.In our family, all meals with lamb (or mutton) always came with mint jelly, but I wasn't sure why. Then I came across your blog, and learn that it may stem from our very own family and religious traditions! What fun -- thanks for solving this riddle for all of us!

The Old Foodie said...

Hi bagelnosher: I think there is still some controversy (in some folks' eyes anyway) as to this explanation, but it sounds right to me!

Anonymous said...

I'll just leave my strange experience here in case anyone else ever found the same thing:

I love lamb meat, but I cannot stand the taste of the fat. Lean lamb meats that have been marinated for a long time are delicious, but I can't eat the meat if there's even a sliver of fat in it. I also can't take goat's milk and goat's cheese, so I figure the same fats are present in those too as they taste similar to me.

Now, in contrast, I love peppermint tea. I like to drink it early in the morning as it's so refreshing. However, there are times when I've eaten fruit right before having my tea and I've ended up with the most disgusting taste in my mouth that - to me - tastes just like fatty lamb. This vanishes as I drink more peppermint tea, but comes back immediately if I take another bite of some fruit like apple or orange.

I have no idea if this is normal. It might just be a strange reaction that only takes place in my mouth flora, but I've never noticed it for other herb teas or the like. The lamb-y taste that I can't stand in the meat is so obvious in the tea that I have trouble drinking it if I've had any fruit.

So maybe - if I'm not the only one who finds this - there's a chemical in the mint that is very similar in taste that we just don't consciously recognise? I don't know. It's bizarre.