The British have a thing about tea. There’s nothing that gets them more euphoric than the promise of a nice cuppa, and maybe some chocolate biscuits to accompany it. They have elevated high tea to a fine art involving more food than any person could reasonably need between meals. They sell every type of tea imaginable from every corner of the globe in emporia such as the venerable Fortnum & Mason. So here I am, living in this Valhalla of the tea-drinking world.
And I don’t like tea.
It could be that I just have bad childhood memories of tea brewed (so it tasted) for about 10 days, then generously dosed with milk and two spoons of sugar and handed to me in a steaming mugful that looked like dirty dishwater and smelt of damp leaves. Shudder. Or it could be that I just haven’t met the right tea. I recently read the delightful Snail Eggs and Samphire by Derek Cooper and in his essay on tea he transports you into a heady, sensual world with his vivid descriptions of the tastes of different teas and their appropriate times of consumption. So maybe “my” tea is still out there, waiting to be discovered.
In the meantime, however, I have become a great fan of other leaves that can be steeped in hot water and drunk. Fruit teas like lemon and ginger, or herb teas like peppermint. But the beverage that I drink more than any other is Rooibos (say roy-boss) tea (also called “red bush tea” or just “bush tea”). OK, maybe calling it a tea is a misnomer as it does not come from the same family of plants that is usually referred to as the source of tea leaves – Camellia sinensis. (And btw, did you know that black, green, white and Oolong tea all come from exactly the same plant? The only difference lies in the way the leaves are processed – steamed, fermented, dried or bruised – which gives each tea the unique characteristics of its category. Rooibos tea, on the other hand, is derived from a shrub that is indigenous to the Cedarberg region of South Africa (north of Cape Town) – Aspalthus linearis. In fact, because of the specific geological and climatic characteristics of the area, rooibos only grows in the Cedarberg region around the towns of Clanwilliam and Citrusdal, and is not produced anywhere else in the world – a truly South African tea!
The shrubs grow wild on the sandy slopes of the Cedarberg mountains and it is likely that the indigenous people have been harvesting its needle-like leaves and drinking an infusion made from them for hundreds of years. But it was only in 1904 that Benjamin Ginsberg, a Russian expat descended from a family of tea merchants, came across Rooibos (“red bush”, literally translated) and started trading with the locals to obtain it. However, since the supply was made up entirely of wild shrubs and harvesting involved climbing the hills to cut the leaves, rooibos was not commercially viable. But in the 1930s Ginsberg persuaded a local doctor, Dr Pieter Le Fras Nortier, to experiment with cultivating the seeds commercially and, after achieving success, to encourage farmers to start growing rooibos on a large scale as a commercial venture. Demand for rooibos grew steadily, especially during the second World War when Ceylon tea became difficult to obtain. However, after the war, the market collapsed and only painstaking work by the Clanwilliam Tea Cooperative and subsequently the Rooibos Tea Control Board stabilised prices, improved quality and slowly started rebuilding the market for rooibos.
One of the major selling points of rooibos both in South Africa and abroad is its natural goodness. For a start, it contains no additives, flavouring or colouring. The green leaves are harvested and cut down to 5mm lengths before being aired and left in heaps 15-20cm high to ferment. After about 8 hours of a constant 30-35C temperature the leaves leaves have turned brown and acquired their characteristic sweet flavour, and are then spread out on concrete slabs to dry in the sun. After it is dry, it is graded according to quality, sifted to remove impurities and steam pasteurised before being sent in bulk to various international packers for branding and distribution (see the whole story – with pictures! – here). On a molecular level, it is also caffeine-free and very low in tannins which is good as tannin can interfere with the body’s ability to absorb iron, and also means that it has none of the bitter aftertaste that all other “normal” teas seem to have. It is also a source of iron, potassium, magnesium, manganese, copper, zinc, fluoride and bioflavonoids, although in quantities that would require you to drink pots of tea in order to achieve your recommended daily intake! Its antioxidant levels have been found to be similar to those of green tea, but without the caffeine and tannin, and since one of its flavonoids is an anti-spasmodic it is often recommended for babies who are prone to colic.
So, in an increasingly health-conscious market, it’s not hard to see why rooibos continues to grow in popularity. (Another possible reason is its repeated appearances in the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series of books, where the world’s troubles can be solved over a cup of soothing bush tea on the verandah!) But as for me, I drink it because I like the taste. I was thrilled when my parents switched to drinking rooibos in the 1980s and I discovered that I actually had found a tea to enjoy! What I really don’t like about most teas is the bitter tannic aftertaste – but with rooibos there is none of that. It has such a mild flavour that it is a perfect partner for a slice of lemon, a slice of fresh ginger or a spoonful of honey, and none of these tastes will clash with the rooibos. To my mind, the best way to drink it is with no milk or sugar (and maybe just a splash of honey). It is also a useful ingredient to cook with (can be used as the liquid component in stews, soups, baked goods and desserts) as it imparts its mild, slightly spicy flavour without being overpowering. It is also a very effective and natural colouring agent – anything left to steep in Rooibos will acquire its rather attractive russet colour! If you are after more recipes using rooibos, this is the place for you.
But let’s move on to my “Is My Blog Burning?” recipe. (For those who still don’t know, IMBB is a monthly online foodblogging event initiated by Alberto where bloggers from around the globe post recipes, adhering to a selected theme, on a specified day. The month’s host then does a roundup of these recipes a few days later.) I’ve had this recipe for ages and ages. It’s snipped from a long-forgotten magazine and pasted into my recipe index book, and although I’ve made variations of it in the past, I’ve never made the recipe as it stands. But when I saw this month’s IMBB theme of TasteTea, it’s the first recipe that leaped to mind… so thanks to Clement for hosting and for finally spurring me on to make it!
ROOIBOS FRUIT & MUESLI “PIE”
Ingredients (serves 4)
500g dried fruit (ideally, apples, apricots & prunes, but feel free to improvise)
2 Rooibos tea bags (available outside South Africa from most health stores and some supermarkets)
1 stick cinnamon
1/4 cup sugar
2 thick lemon slices
1/4 cup honey
100g museli (preferably unsweetened)
Roughly chop the fruit and place it in a large shallow dish. Add the sugar, lemon slices, cinnamon stick and rooibos tea bags and add enough boiling water to cover. I also added a tot of Bourbon at this stage, but that’s optional…! Cover and leave to soak overnight or for at least 8 hours. When you are ready to assemble the pie, pour off the liquid from the fruit, discard the cinnamon stick, teabags and lemon and pack fruit tightly in a serving dish just big enough for the fruit to cover the bottom in a single layer. Melt the honey and butter together in the microwave and whisk until smooth and creamy. Pour this mixture over the muesli in a separate bown and mix well. Spread the muesli mix evenly over the fruit and heat in a moderate oven until lukewarm. Then finish under the grill for a couple of minutes until the muesli turns golden and crispy. Serve with whipped cream or natural yoghurt.
And how was it? Mmmmm, yummy! And pretty healthy too, as desserts go! The fruit was slightly spicy, subtly coloured and had a hint of booze (!). The muesli was crispy and made a nice counterpoint to the soft fruit, and the whipped cream was suitably decadent. My only “notes to self” for next time would be: a) maybe less sugar in the fruit mix and more lemon for a more robust flavour; b) if I use sweetened muesli, less honey in the butter/honey mix; and c) rememebr to buy yoghurt next time, as it would be a nice contrast to the sweetness of the fruit. All I had in the fridge was double cream which was delicious, but yoghurt would be my choice next time!