Now that the olive blossom has faded, the dominant scent in the olive grove is once again a strong, minty fragrance. Tracing the scent back to its source, I stumbled upon an aromatic plant with small, downy, greyish leaves, which resembled oregano. Michele informed me it was nepitella (calamintha nepeta to give it its botanical name), or lesser calamint – a wild mint that grows throughout Tuscany, and which is a typical flavour of Tuscan cuisine.
Nepitella is low-growing – it is dwarfed by taller weeds and windflowers in our ulivetto – so the aroma is key to identifying its presence. The scent is particularly heady at harvest time and during picnics, when its leaves are bruised by nets and blankets. It is easier to spot when it flowers in summer and is covered in a profusion of tiny lavender and white flowers. Although it is less vigorous than other mints, it is resiliant and fast-growing, already resprouting where we have mown the grove.
The optimal time for harvesting nepitella is early summer when the flavour is supposed to be at its most intense, but it can be picked at any time of year and used fresh or dried. To dry nepitella, as with all herbs, stems should be tied into small bundles so that air can circulate, and hung in a dark, dry room for a couple of weeks.
In Tuscany nepitella is eaten almost exclusively with mushrooms (preferably of the porcini variety) and is often simply referred to as erba da funghi (mushroom grass), although it is sometimes also used with artichokes and courgettes. While the fragrance of nepitella is definitely on the minty side, the flavour is distinct from mint and usually described as a cross between mint and oregano. The flavour is intense and a little goes a long way.
As well as a culinary herb, nepitella has been used for centuries as a medicinal herb to aid digestion and insomnia, break fevers and relieve period pain (it should be avoided by pregnant women). Pliny recommended it for warding off snakes and apparently it was also traditionally used to treat scorpion bites – luckily I haven’t had call to test it yet. Instead, while we wait for porcini season to commence, I have been using it to make both hot and iced tea – regardless of any potential medical benefits, it’s refreshing and aromatic.