Brewing herbal tea from your garden

Illustration by Adriana Picker

Illustration by Adriana Picker

A garden full of brewable plants puts a cuppa for any occasion at your fingertips, writes Paulette Whitney.

When you're spoilt, it's hard to come down a peg or two. Say you're used to flying up the front of the plane and find yourself in cattle class all the way from Singapore to London between a crying baby and some guy with durian breath (or, better still, a baby with durian breath). Or perhaps on special occasions you only drink vintage Champagne, but a so-called friend pops cask white into the SodaStream to help you celebrate a promotion.

I don't turn left on planes much, and it's been a while between bottles of Dom, but that's how I feel when I find myself presented with the dusty, bland memories of plants that are sometimes served as herbal tea.

It's a peculiar oversight in a world of house-churned butter and heirloom tomatoes to finish a meal and, yearning for something refreshing to round off the night, find yourself presented with a stale infusion of lemongrass chaff to see you on your way.

It's easy here on the property with a garden full of brewable plants. I can choose something lemony, anise, bitter, resinous or floral to suit my whim, seconds from the garden to the teapot. I'll wander about gathering random handfuls of leaves and flowers and, by some alchemic chance, no matter the combination, it always tastes wonderful. I'm sure it does me good. Google any plant you care to pop into your teacup, along with the catchphrase "health benefits", and, if you believe what you read, you'll be cured of gout, your hair will be glossy and your libido will be the talk of the neighbourhood.

I'll still brew infusions of German chamomile, thyme and honey if kids' throat infections loom, mind you, or the more controversially flavoured blend of turmeric, black pepper and fenugreek if there are blocked noses. But our favourite brews are the ones we gather with only flavour in mind.

Mexican tarragon, Tagetes lucida, makes a rich, anise-flavoured tea, great for cracking a sugar habit - the ritual of brewing, pouring and sipping the sweet tea is almost enough to make you forget about the kids' candy stash on top of the fridge.

A more savoury infusion - in both the literal and metaphorical sense - is Cretan savory, Satureja thymbra. Apparently used for cleaning wine barrels in Crete (I love imagining the flavours it adds to wine), as a tea it tastes of thyme and cosiness. It's inordinately comforting to clutch a steaming cup of this brew while sitting by the fire in winter.

Mints offer an endless array of flavours and are said to aid digestion. They're easy to grow and readily available - surely a viable and delicious competitor for that dusty lemongrass? Named for their scents, chocolate mint, lemon mint and pineapple mint are but a few. A favourite here is ginger mint - minty and gingery, as its name suggests, both warming and quenching. But the winner with the children is Moroccan mint, sweetened with sugar and chilled - on a warm autumn afternoon it cools you from the inside.

If I've succumbed to my penchant for fatty, gelatinous meats and grandmotherly puddings, and served guests braised oxtails, potatoes roasted in dripping and golden syrup dumplings, I'll offer short, strongly brewed cups of anise-flavoured herbs and chamomile, spiked perhaps with a little artichoke leaf. A teetotal (tea total?) digestive and a pretty end to a special meal if I brew it on the table in a glass teapot: golden chamomile buds, purple anise hyssop flowers and green artichoke leaves swimming about in the hot water, adding a sense of ceremony to something that is so often mundane.

It's not difficult. Even without a garden you can nurture a few pots on your balcony - you only need small quantities of plants, so tea herbs are perhaps the highest-value comestibles you can grow in small spaces. You could chat to a grower at your local farmers' market, or even go and see a herbalist - even if you're not aiming to cure ills, they often source higher-quality herbs than you'll find in any supermarket aisle.

A good herbal tea can be a treat, a ritual or a medicine. Find your garden shears, put the kettle on, and indulge your curiosity and your palate.


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