Chamomile was one of the nine sacred herbs that the Anglo-Saxons believed had special powers. Known in English as Maythen, it was said to lift the spirits and have antifungal qualities. It is an anti-stress drink that eases sleep but it is also used for muscle aches, headaches, nausea and skin burns. It is said to relax muscles and for this reason is used to relieve spasms of the digestive tract, colitis and diverticulosis and interestingly, it claims to also stimulate the appetite. As with all herbs, caution is needed before ingesting – I have read that it should not be taken during pregnancy or while nursing and it may interact with certain drugs.
Chamomile herbal tea has been a long-standing bedtime drink in our house and this year we grew our own chamomile for the first time. I bought a tiny pot of unknown variety for €3 last June and less than 3 months later it is a thriving chamomile plant that is low maintenance and colourful. It spreads low to the ground and the area that it covers is weed-free which is more than can be said for the rest of the garden!
The word chamomile comes from Greek and means “ground apple” and that’s exactly what it smells like. Two types of chamomile are grown in herb gardens for medicinal use: Roman (Chamaemelum nobile) and German (Matricaria chamomilla). The German variety is native to Europe and western Asia is an upright annual that can grow to 1 metre tall. The Roman variety is native to western Europe and north Africa and is a low-growing perennial that is usually about 20cm in height. Both produce small, daisy-like white flowers with yellow centres, though in terms of taste German chamomile is reportedly sweeter. While the medicinal applications are similar, the German chamomile is contains a higher proportion of chamazulene, an active anti-inflammatory while Roman has a higher alcohol content and is considered better for skin conditions.
Both varieties are pest and disease free and gardeners often spread them among crops and herbs to boost overall health of the garden. There is a non-flowering variety of Roman chamomile and this can be used instead of grass for full lawns because it will thrive when lightly trodden. Buckingham Palace is said to have such a chamomile lawn that was planted for George V.
My plant had one bloom when I bought it in June and since then has continued to bloom heavily. The blossoms should be picked the day that they open for the best flavour (I haven’t done this) and should be dried immediately after harvesting. To dry, they are spread on a mesh screen in a warm place indoors, out of direct sunlight. When the flowers are completely dry, store in light-proof jars or in a dark cupboard.
To prepare the herbal infusion, add boiling water to a teasppon of the dried flowers. Cover the container while it infuses to avoid evaporation of volatile oils. Leave for 3-5 minutes and then enjoy.
Rooibos (pronounced “roy-boss” in South Africa, pronounced “roo-y-boss” here) is a caffeine-free tisane that comes from the leaf of Aspalathus linearis and not Camellia sinensis. Rooibos is produced in South Africa and similar to tea processing, it can be oxidised (red) or non-oxidised (green).
It is generally said that Rooibos is an acquired taste. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t like it (in fact, I can’t remember my life before Rooibos at all!) but the flavour is different to every other tea so maybe it takes a little while to get used to it. Rooibos often comes flavoured (e.g. vanilla, caramel) and these can be very sickly. If you haven’t tried Rooibos, my advice is to try an unflavoured Rooibos first and experiment with the flavoured varieties later if you like the basic taste.
Rooibos is a relaxing and hydrating drink and not one for energising or kick-starting your day. Because it is caffeine free, it can be taken at any time. I drink it mostly in the afternoons or as a soothing end to a heavy meal.
The preparation of Rooibos is straightforward and one of the least fussy teas to prepare. Put 5g of loose leaf tea into a brew-basket (or teapot) and add 200ml of freshly boiled water (100° C). It needs to settle for about 4 minutes but can be left longer for a deeper taste, as it never gets bitter. The leaves can be re-used for multiple steepings but it’ll be noticeably weaker after several uses. I never use milk or sweetener but I’ve seen people adding both in South Africa.
The Rooibos pictured here is organic and fair-trade and was bought in Ghent, Belgium for €2.95 (for 100g). The tea is a little hazy and not as clear and crisp as higher grades was great value.
I was setting up the categories for this tea blog and it got me thinking about the neatness of the tea classes. There are six classes or categories of tea (green, white, yellow, oolong, black and pu-erh) and I still find it fascinating (and handy now) that each of the thousands of different teas that are out there can fit into one of those six categories. Better again, all tea comes from the leaves of a single species of plant: Camellia sinensis.
Here are the categories that I have for the blog so far:
- Black – almost fully-oxidised and mostly produced in India (Assam and Darjeeling), Kenya, Sri Lanka and China. E.g. Keemun, Zhenshan Xiaochung (lapsang souchong).
- Green – teas such as sencha, Matcha, Gunpowder, Longjing, Taiping Houkui that have had minimal oxidation and kept the green color of the leaves. Predominantly from China, Japan and Korea.
- Oolong – partially oxidised and complicated in production, this type includes Da Hong Pao (red robe) and Tieguanyin. Produced in China and Taiwan.
- Pu-erh – post-fermented tea from China and called ‘black tea’ in China. Comes as sheng (raw) or shou (cooked). My favourite!
- White – made from the buds of the Camellia sinensis and very lightly processed it includes bai mudan (white peony) and Baiho Yinzhen (silver needles).
- Yellow – these teas are not easy to find here so this category won’t be used too much to start with but it didn’t seem right to leave it out.
- Buying tea & storage: looking at where to get good tea and how to store it or age it.
- Tisanes: This will cover all the herbal drinks that are sometimes referred to as tea but are herbal infusions or herbal teas. This covers peppermint, chamomile, ginger, fennel etc.
- Rooibos & Honeybush: Technically these are tisanes but they get their own category because I love them so much!
- Out and About: This is where I post about going for afternoon tea or lunch to see what the tea is like out there.
I’m sure there are plenty more categories that I’ll need to add as I go along but theses will do for a starting point.