It all started in June 2012, in a restaurant in Little Italy, New York. I chose what I thought was a simple dish – gnocchi with pesto. What I was served was so unusual, it launched a three-year quest to recreate it. What was that, that strange flavour I could only describe as giving the pesto, which can often just a little on the claggy side, a sort of blue flavour?
The waitress duly disappeared off to the kitchens and returned with the name: Nepitella. All she knew was that it grows like a weed in Italy. I had to have it.
No one had heard of Nepitella. Everyone I called thought I meant Nepeta and eventually I began to think I must have heard it wrongly and they must have meant classic catmint, so I tried it. It grew perfectly well, but even as I crushed the leaves between my fingers I knew it wasn’t what I’d hoped it would be.
No, nepitella it had to be. I tried calling a few Italian seed companies ‘Yes, we know what you mean, no we don’t stock it. People keep asking us about it…’ I hazarded the proposal that if people kept asking about it it might be worth stocking, they said, yes, maybe…in that voice that said no, can’t be bothered.
Of course once I knew the latin name, Calamintha nepeta, it helped a lot. I found seeds closer to home, at Jekka McVicker’s website.
You’ll only ever need to sow Nepitella once. You can get one packet between lots of people as it grows like topsy. Grow it like regular mint, contained to prevent it becoming invasive, giving it full sun – though I keep mine in a spot that only gets sun in the mornings and it’s just fine.
Every June, its fragrant, pungeant leaves make a fantastic addition to dishes. Use them young, and don’t bother after the (very pretty) flowers arrive, as it will be past its best. And yes, I did recreate that recipe I ate in Little Italy – it took a couple of attempts, but when I got it right, the flavour burst into my mouth, transporting me back, three and a half thousand miles and four years.
Find my recipe for Nepitella ice cream here. I’ll be adding the gnocchi/ pesto recipe as soon as I’ve written it down…