Black Peruvian mint has been widely used in Andean and wider South American cultures since the ancient Incas were mad for it, but only recently has it begun to make a regular appearance in London restaurants, and been taken up by British growers. Produce Business UK investigates the product’s support of the trend towards anything South American and the chefs increasingly looking for further cleansing and aromatic flavours to use in their dishes
Latin name: Tagetes minuta L.
Also known as: Huacatay, wakataya, Mexican marigold or Inca marigold.
Origin/history: A member of the Mexican marigold family, black Peruvian mint is native to the temperate grasslands of the southern regions of South America, including Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Paraguay.
Historically, the plant’s natural essential oil, known as huacatay oil, has been extracted and it’s believed that the medicinal use of this oil goes back to Inca times. Black Peruvian mint has been grown commercially for its oil since 1750. The oil was and is still extracted for body lotions, perfumes and general cosmetic use. In Africa, meanwhile, the plant is used to control and guard against pests and bugs.
Traditionally, black Peruvian mint has been used as a culinary herb in both its fresh and paste form in Peru, Ecuador, Chile and Bolivia. Due to the short shelf-life of the leaves, the product is commonly sold in grocery stores as a paste, known as black mint paste or huacatay paste. Fresh black Peruvian mint is used in Japanese Peruvian settlers’ food – Nikkei cuisine – and is also becoming a trend in various Asian and South American-inspired dishes and restaurants.
Production: It still isn’t easy to find fresh black mint leaves outside of Peru, even though black Peruvian mint is used in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and India. Typically available in the summer months, it grows in a temperate climate in any kind of soil and as large bushes, similar to a cannabis plant. It’s considered a weed in some countries.
UK grower, Cherry Tree Farm in Kent, which serves restaurants and caterers in London with niche salads and herbs, is now growing black Peruvian mint commercially following a successful trial in 2014.
“Last year it grew really well in clay soil under a polytunnel and we cut around 4kg a few times a week,” says Cherry Tree Farm’s grower James Perkins, who has received a lot of demand for fresh black Peruvian mint from South American restaurants over the last couple of years. “It has been colder this year, so the plants were slow in getting going and we are three weeks behind.
“Despite having to replant once this year, I don’t think it will be a problem to grow going forward – it seems to grow anywhere,” Perkins continues. “The plants can grow up to 8ft high, but we keep the bushes at 4ft and prune back to encourage regrowth. If you let it grow too much it flops over and becomes weak and less pungent. You have to keep the plants small and continue to cut back.
“Chefs are asking for the young leaves, as well as the more established leaves, as what they don’t use fresh, they turn into a paste and freeze. We will start harvesting in July and until around about November, or even later depending on the weather.”
Fresh UK season: June to October.
Appearance: Black Peruvian mint leaves are thin and dark with pronounced ridges and a slightly purple tinge.
Flavour: Sharper than a regular mint, the flavour of black Peruvian mint is commonly described as pretty unique, strong and aromatic. It’s said to be in between mint and basil, with an aniseed kick, although it’s been likened to coriander and tarragon. Flavour always comes down to individual opinion though – some even say it tastes nothing like mint!
How it’s being used: Black Peruvian mint has traditionally been used as a condiment in stews, soups and Peruvian ajís (sauces). It can be used to make herb marinades for poultry, lamb and seafood. More recently, the mint’s cool and clean qualities have been used in chilled desserts and the herb adds a really indescribable zing. But the general advice seems to be to use black Peruvian mint sparingly since a few leaves go a long way.
Popular dishes: The fresh herb or paste is used in many traditional Peruvian dishes, such as Peruvian roast chicken (Pollo a la Brasa), which is typically served with a sauce made from huacatay; a popular potato dish called ocopa, where the sauce is made with toasted peanuts; and the famous Pachamanca – a dish baked in a hot stone oven with mutton or guinea pig, to name a few.
Black Peruvian mint also adds a punch to salsas or traditional Peruvian ají sauces, which feature chopped huacatay leaves. More recently, black Peruvian mint has been used in more Anglicised and Asian-inspired dishes, such as Peruvian-style crispy pork belly, black mint sauce (Ricardo Zarate), spicy lamb tartare (The Grant Grill) and Soho restaurant Chotto Matte’s gambas salvajes, which comprises tempura prawns served with a butter ponzu and huacatay, or seabass huacatay ceviche.
What the chefs say: “Before we introduced black Peruvian mint onto our menus, we had to find someone to actually grow it for us,” explains Chotto Matte’s head chef Michael Paul, who specialises in Nikkei food. “Black Peruvian mint is totally unique and it is one of those flavours that conjures up the Nikkei taste. Trying to get fresh product straight out of Peru can be quite difficult.”
Additional info: Black Peruvian mint is still known for its medicinal properties. In Mexico it’s used as drinking tea for the treatment of common colds.
Upcoming trend: Black Peruvian mint flowers and black Peruvian mint cocktails.