Fragrant and invigorating, there are certain concoctions that seem like tea but are far from it
These are tisanes or herbal infusions derived from leaves, bark, flowers, twigs, seeds, fruit and roots, dried or fresh
Fans of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency will recognize any mention of “bush tea". Made popular by the series’ protagonist Precious Ramotswe, it features regularly in the books. The assistant, Mma Makutsi, brews the tea and the two discuss a case at hand or other troubles. In due course, Mma Makutsi works up the courage to ask for a second teapot, because everyone else prefers “ordinary" tea. Mma Ramotswe is surprised but acquiesces.
I open the pack of red bush tea and add some to my nicest teapot (a hat tip to the author and his creation). I allow it to steep in hot water (1 tsp tea/200ml water at about 90 degrees Celsius/3-5 minutes). A rich red brew shines in my cup. I have no reference for the taste—it smells of dried plant but gives few hints about the flavours.
I am smitten by the colour—it reminds me of a dark, tippy Assam. It smells and tastes nice, with a familiar woody flavour. It’s the aftertaste that’s memorable, really refreshing. Black tea lovers will take to it; it’s like meeting a long-lost cousin.
Bush tea or rooibos is made from the plant Aspalathus linearis, native to South Africa. Harvested and processed like tea, it’s available in red (fully oxidized) and green (less oxidized).
The other non-tea I tried this week is the yerba mate. Native to South America, it’s much less like tea than the rooibos, maybe a cousin many times removed. Yerba mate is made from the leaves of the Ilex paraguariensis and also steeped like tea (1 tsp/200ml water/5-7 minutes). The mate I have gives off an aroma of dates and tastes lighter and greener than the rooibos, but is as refreshing. In Brazil, it’s a drink that is sipped all day long in mate gourds (originally squash gourds but now available in ceramic and even wood) from a bombila, a straw with a handy strainer at the base. This one green-tea drinkers will find quite easy to enjoy.
The rooibos and yerba mate are not technically tea—neither originates from the Camellia sinensis plant—and fall in the category of “tisanes", or herbal infusions. Fans of Agatha Christie’s famous creation, Hercule Poirot, will recognize tisane as the drink he favoured to protect his “little grey cells". Tisanes can be made from leaves, bark, flowers, twigs, seeds, fruit, berries and roots, dried or fresh, infused in water or boiled to make a decoction. Most have gained popularity owing to their supposed medicinal benefits (hibiscus for blood pressure, mint for an upset stomach), or rituals (tulsi, turmeric, ginger infusions that grandma made). Some are simply lovely to look at, producing great colour, like the burgundy of hibiscus or the blue of the butterfly pea flower, which is trending this year.
Lines blur between teas and tisanes because they are often blended together. Tisanes are familiar to tea drinkers, so many tea retailers offer them. If you ask me, they are fun for the occasional flirtation but there’s a world within tea still waiting to be discovered, and that is the endeavour I remain wedded to.