Omnivorous: What's That Herb? | Food & Drink Column | Chicago Reader

Omnivorous: What's That Herb? 

At a chef's request, a local landscaper tracks down the mysterious Italian ingredient called mentuccia

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Last summer, when Piccolo Sogno chef Tony Priolo asked Michael Loran Hansel to locate an obscure Italian herb that he wanted to grow on the restaurant's back patio, the landscaper was stumped.

Piccolo has one of the most majestic outdoor dining areas in the city, but it was already a challenge even for Hansel, who specializes in difficult urban landscaping projects. "Within that one site, one part of that garden will get rain and the other part doesn't," he says. "One part gets sun and the other part doesn't."

So far Hansel had put in fennel, rosemary, thyme, dill, and basil as well as inedible plants. "Pretty straight-ahead stuff," he says. But then Priolo requested mentuccia, a wild member of the mint family that's used in some traditional Roman dishes. Hansel checked his shelf of horticultural books and found nothing about it. He called suppliers and growers' associations and even a friend in Bologna—but nobody knew anything.

It's not hard to see why. Even the few English-language sources that have any information about the herb aren't all that clear about it. The Oxford Companion to Italian Food confuses the plant with some of its cousins in the Lamiaceae family, identifying it as common pennyroyal but acknowledging that "sorting out these various kinds of mint, which cross and hybridise easily, is a bit complicated, and on top of that, the Italian names vary from place to place."

Eventually Hansel came across an article in the Los Angeles Times that briefly mentioned a grower who'd been given some mentuccia seeds by a customer and had begun cultivating the plant. Hansel called the guy, who at first wouldn't sell him any. When he relented, he still refused to ship them, insisting that they be picked up in person. Last September Hansel was scheduled to do a job in San Francisco, so a friend met the grower in LA and flew north with four plants. Hansel bare rooted them, freeing them from their soil, then wrapped them in wet newspaper and flew them back home to Chicago. It was too late in the season to install them on Piccolo Sogno's patio, so one was potted in the greenhouse west of Hebron where Hansel contracts with a grower. The others returned to the city with him. He kept one in a window, one in the yard, and one on his deck and started experimenting.

Hansel, who's also a dedicated cook and oenophile, began by putting the herb to its traditional use. Mentuccia is most commonly associated with the classic Roman dish carciofi alla Romana: trimmed artichokes stuffed and rubbed with a mixture of parsley, garlic, and mentuccia and braised in water and olive oil. He also tried the herb fresh, tossed in salads, and added to braises, which mellowed its flavor.

He thinks the plant has potential as an ornamental too. "The flower on it is un-fucking-believable," he says. "It's like an orchid. So it's very sexual. It's very mysterious." He took cuttings for propagation at the greenhouse.

Most published sources compare mentuccia to mint, which is frequently used as a substitute in recipes, though after smelling and tasting the herb, I wouldn't exactly call it minty—its aroma is somewhat citrusy, but its flavor is difficult to describe. Hansel prescribes moderation when using it fresh: "All you do is go bink and throw it on the fish. Throw it on the grilled pork, the eggs, or whatever. It's like, boom, you're done."

Last week Hansel sauteed some cremini mushrooms with garlic, onion, bacon, red wine, chicken stock, and butter. He plucked a tablespoon's worth of baby mentuccia leaves from a scrappy little plant he took down from his windowsill, chopping it up and adding a bit to the skillet a few minutes before it was finished. At first I wasn't tasting anything unusual, but then suddenly there it was—a subtle essence on the upper middle palate, as much inhaled as tasted. It wasn't minty, but it did have a certain mentholated character. Like its flower, mentuccia's flavor is "mysterious," says Hansel. He added more to the mushrooms. The raw leaves weren't quite as intense as those that'd had time to release their oils into the mushrooms. But these being just baby leaves, I could see why Hansel recommended restraint.

The plant Hansel was cooking with was the last of the three he brought home with him—he lost two when he moved to his present apartment. But wherever they are, they're probably still growing. He didn't water the third for three months over the winter when he was traveling abroad, and while the plant had essentially disappeared on his return, as soon as he resumed watering it, with spring around the corner, the plant shot up long tendrils with tiny leaves.

The mentuccia will be planted in the garden at Piccolo Sogno along with borage, a bay leaf tree, and artichokes. It should be ready to go in the ground at the end of May and ready for Priolo to harvest in June, when he says he'll be using it with mushrooms, fish, meat, and of course artichokes.

Its tenaciousness has convinced Hansel that he can use the plant as a trailing element in some of the edible baskets and urns he creates for his customers. (A horticulturist at the Chicago Botanic Garden notes that containing its roots in this way will prevent it from invading the territory of native plants, and advises clipping the flowers.) Back at the greenhouse there are now 200 mentuccia seedlings in two-inch pots. Hansel's sure he'll be able to sell them all. But once they're gone, that'll be it for Chicago, until the next batch of cuttings are ready later in the summer.v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on food and drink, see our blog the Food Chain.

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