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Jackie French: How to grow mint

We only require two things from "our" wombats. The first is that they appear regularly so visitors can say, "Aren't they sweet?". The second is that they eat the local native ground covers, grass, and the soft parts of reeds or sedges, as well as occasional carrots, parsnips, celery or parsley roots, and do not change their dietary habits for no good reason.

But do they? No. You can rely on a wombat never to appear when you want one. And to arrive when you don't – i.e. trotting along the middle of the road when it's late and you are longing to get the car home and your body into bed. You can also rely on a wombat – or the entire wombat population of this end of the valley – to ignore all mints for more than 40 years. Spearmint, Egyptian mint, the camphorous mint that grew in the creek one year till a flood scoured it away, native river mint, orange mint, eau de cologne mint ... not so much as a nibble. And then one week – last week to be precise – Wild Whiskers ate the entire pot of curly mint growing by the back door that I had cosseted through two droughts and rejuvenated after an uncounted period of neglect. 

Mint doesn't do much in winter, and nor had the pot of curly mint till a few weeks ago, dying back to a few ugly twigs. I pruned it, watered it, fed it lightly and waited, and the sprigs came up all lush and twisting. I went out to harvest a handful for the season's first tabouli and whump. One half pot looked gorgeous. The other half had been cut to the ground. I assumed I'd wandered out the day before and picked it absent-mindedly. But the next day, every sprig was gone. Four days later I saw the culprit, brown furred and minty mouthed, carefully vacuuming up the last of the rootlets.

I put the pot up on what is supposedly a barbecue but has turned into a plant rack. Mint is resilient, and the curly mint should survive this latest insult too, assuming Wild Whiskers doesn't decide to take up barbecue climbing. (Wombats can climb. They just don't do it very often.)

Curly mint is a variant of culinary mint, or mint sauce mint. Our other mints grow in the tiger pen, so named because it looks like it's been fenced to keep tigers in, rather than wombats out. There is peppermint – the "mint tea" mint, small-leafed and intensely fragrant; Egyptian mint – big floppy leaves that can be almost lettuce tender if well fed and watered and are the best tabouli mint, or to add to salads of parsley, tomato and black olives; orange mint, with a sweet tang that is delicious in fruit salad, as is eau de cologne mint, classically used in mint julep, bruised and topped with lots of ice, sugar syrup and bourbon in whatever proportions you prefer, but always heavy on the ice and mint.

Ignore chocolate mint. It isn't, and has a vague camphor aftertaste too. And spearmint, which tastes of toothpaste, which isn't its fault. If spearmint had never been used to make toothpaste palatable it might be delicious as a tea, but not after decades of association with brushing or dentist's mouthwash. But if you have a kind heart, green thumbs and a damp spot near the garden tap, do try Corsican mint. It has minute leaves, is intensely minty and makes the most stunningly fragrant green carpet.

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 If you are truly green-thumbed, a garden seat filled with soil and Corsican mint would be a mid-summer delight, though I am realistic enough about my ability to put off watering the pot plants never to have attempted it. I would dearly love one, though, and perhaps a chamomile seat to go with it. And the greenhouse full of vanilla orchids and cocoa trees and a hectare of strawberries, 20 varieties in yellow, white, pink and deep red to fruit from spring to autumn.

But back to mints. They all need lashings of water, hence the feral mint that grew for a while in the creek. Most will grow in a glass of water on the windowsill, or a teapot, which is a good use for a loyal pot that has lost its spout or lid and deserves a decorative retirement. The exception is apple mint, fuzzy leafed and drought surviving. Ours escaped about a decade ago and ran through the lawn, luckily the bit that gets semi-regularly mowed and keeps the mint runners from travelling further. It also smells delicious when chopped up by the mower. But just in case your soil is moist and fertile and mint-friendly, grow your mint in pots, where it can't escape but you can shift near the garden tap in dry times, or by the back door, convenient for harvest, as well as watering with the water you've brushed your teeth in or cooked the spuds, in times of severe water conservation.

And in return you get the zing of mint for salads, fruit dishes, to slip into your ice-blocks or add sprigs to jugs of cold water, with slices of lemon, lime or orange for added savour. Freshlypicked mint has a depth you won't find even in "fresh" bunches bought from the shop. You can run a few leaves between your fingers on the way out the door, too. Unless the wombat has eaten it. But at least if she tries to bite me, her breath will be fresh.

This week I'm

  • watching the cherry and pear blossom open in a froth of white;
  • picking double daffodils and stuffing them in vases
  • thanking the bower birds for eating all the broccoli – I am so sick of broccoli and, anyway, the asparagus is shooting;
  • waiting for the melon seeds to germinate
  • putting in bean seeds and crossing my fingers that it's warm enough for them to sprout before they rot or the ants cart them away; and
  • ditto carrot seed.

Extraordinarily rich flourless chocolate orange cake with sauce

Ingredients:

250g dark chocolate 

125g butter

½ cup Cointreau

½ cup extremely strong coffee, made with about 6 tbsp ground coffee

5 eggs, separated

125g castor sugar

6 tbsp orange zest

200g ground almonds

Orange chocolate sauce

100ml cream

100g dark chocolate

 6 tbsp orange zest

100ml cream

Preheat oven to 150C. Line cake tin with two layers of baking paper. Make sure it fits well. 

Melt chocolate and butter. Don't over-cook – the chocolate will sit looking intact though the butter will be liquid. Add the coffee and Cointreau.

Beat the egg yolks, sugar and orange zest until light and fluffy. Gently add the chocolate and butter mix, and then fold in the ground almonds.

Whisk egg whites until stiff. Fold them into the cake mix very, very gently, so it doesn't lose its puff. Scrape into the cake tin. Bake in the middle of the oven for about 45 minutes or till the cake has risen and the top looks set.

Cool in the tin before turning out. This can be done in the fridge if you need it faster. The cake will become more solid as it cools.

To make the orange chocolate sauce, melt the chocolate with the orange zest in the microwave. Stir in the cream. Cool.

Pour the sauce over the slices of cake – don't leave the whole cake in the sauce or it may go soggy.