Mentuccia leaf

“I remember my Yorkshire grandmother, when as a small child I asked her if she used herbs, went very tight-lipped and said well there was pennyroyal … She had had a hard life, a brutal husband and too many mouths to feed.”

Pennyroyal is Mentha pulegium, a mint whose Latin name indicates that it was once used to deter fleas and other insect pests. For Gillian Riley’s grandmother, and women since at least the time of Aristophanes, it was probably more useful as an abortifacient. Which was why I saw red when a respected food blogger in Rome referred parenthetically to “mentuccia (pennyroyal)”. But I need to backtrack.

People who've been with me here for a good long while will know that I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about binomials. The formal Latin names of plants are an aid to communication. They help us to ensure that we're both talking about the same thing. Take recipes, for example. If I told you to use kidney beans for a dish, you would have a right to ask me what precisely I meant by kidney beans, lest you use the wrong thing entirely. Now, it just so happens that the artichoke (Cynara, not Helianthus or even Stachys) season is upon us, and with it recipes for carciofi alla romana, Roman-style artichokes, the key to which is that the trimmed artichokes are stuffed with a generous helping of a plant Romans call mentuccia. It is a mint, but which mint? Say you want to make this at home, far from Rome; what do you stuff the artichokes with? Surely not pennyroyal. And yet, that was what Rachel was saying at her blog rachel eats.

As an abortifacient, it didn't seem a good idea to be eating gobbets of pennyroyal in artichokes, so I did what anyone would do and searched for more information. And there is gobbets of that too, much of which does indeed equate pennyroyal and mentuccia. And much of which has clearly never gone beyond a search like the one I did. Some people even think that the Romans put evil pennyroyal in their artichokes deliberately to counter the healthful qualities of artichokes. For me, mentuccia and pennyroyal are both members of the mint family, but separate species, Calamintha nepeta and Mentha pulegium, and not even that closely related. It seemed that none of the confused cooks had actually taken those two plants and compared them as a botanist might.

I shared my concerns with Rachel, who to her credit immediately edited her post and shared her source: Gillian Riley’s Oxford Companion to Italian Food. As it happens, I am fortunate enough to have met Gillian Riley a couple of times, so I asked her for help. She very graciously shared some of her sources, and one can see where the confusion arises - in the common names! There are lots of them, and in particular, both mentuccia and mentuccia romana (which is pennyroyal) exist. But whereas some authors correctly distinguish the two, others say that nepetella or mentuccia is also called mentuccia romana. Italian wikipedia says mentuccia denotes different species in different regions. It really is all very confusing.

Rachel, Luca and a big bunch of mentuccia.

There was nothing for it but to arrange a meeting at the shiny new Testaccio market. Thankfully rachel eats and I share a mutual friend who acted as the go-between. We gathered last Saturday morning, me armed with my plant identification books, Dan with a just-bought pot of mentuccia and some lists he'd made, and Rachel with young Luca. After lots of chit-chat, we visited Rachel's vendor Vincenzo, who had saved a big bunch of mentuccia for us. Alas, no pennyroyal to compare with directly, but the leaves are round and barely toothed, whereas pennyroyal’s are narrower and more definitely serrated. This mentuccia is without a doubt Calamintha nepeta which, if you must have a common name in English, is probably best called Lesser Calamint.

Would it really matter if you did stuff your artichokes with Mentha pulegium rather than Calamintha nepeta? Possibly not, at least if you didn’t do it too often. But really, why risk it? Especially when, as Rachel says after judicious editing: “In Rome mentuccia is used but normal mint will suffice”.

I really cannot thank Gillian Riley enough for her generosity and graciousness. Likewise Rachel Roddy. Would that all authors were as open.

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