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Not too long after my story about Michael Loran Hansel ran, a bit of botanical controversy flared up. In response to Hansel, the landscaper who claimed to have sourced the wild Italian mint known as mentuccia for Piccolo Sogno chef Tony Priolo, we received an e-mail from a North Shore greenhouse manager arguing that he hadn't found anything more exotic than common Calamintha nepeta, aka mountain mint.
The dispute wasn't surprising. As I wrote: "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.”
But Hansel wasn't going to sit still for that. He says he went to check out the woman's plants and maintained that what he had was in fact a different herb. Last week he brought a bunch of mentuccia seedlings back from his greenhouse and showed me a side-by-side comparison. In the attached picture you can see a resemblance, but the mentuccia leaves on the left are greener, shinier, and less intricately veined than the calamint on the right, while the latter's flowers are a deeper purple. Both smelled nice, but the calamint had a more astringent taste--I definitely wouldn't stuff my artichokes with it. More mysteriously, there were a bunch of honeybees frolicking around the mentuccia. They seemed to ignore the calamint.