I recently visited the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle in North Cornwall. It was a humbling experience and a mixture of information about old folklore practices, wise women and men and myths and images of the ‘witch’. I left with the knowledge of how lucky […]
Author: Rachel Lambert
As August has been unfolding I have been sneaking up to the moors and delighting in the tinges of purple, pinks and yellow as the heath-land takes on its late-summer coat. Bell heather (Erica cinerea) is the first to appear with her larger purple bell-shaped […]
I’ve been having some humble tea experiences. Not just because tea is a humble, everyday drink, but because I’ve been trying to make a fermented black tea from wild greens. And the result, so far, is humbling.
I’d been researching the history of tea drinking, and discovered that the black Indian tea of my childhood is not the only black tea that the British used to love and import by the truck load. Of course I’m familiar with herbal and medicinal teas, many of which I’ve been drinking for decades, though this is different. Read more to find out all the different ways I was humbled by this process!
A popular fermented black tea made from a common weed
Ivan tea, or Koporsky tea is made from the leaves of Rosebay willowherb (Chamaenerion angustifolium) and was first mentioned in the 12th century and was popular right up until the 18th century. In fact, it was Russia’s second largest export to Europe, making it just as popular as Indian tea. Researching it recently (through Joybilee Farm website and many Russian videos and blogs on how to make Ivan chai or Ivan tea) I’ve found myself fumbling in the dark with a new process and way of working with a plant.
Rosebay willowherb is a plant I’ve been familiar with for years. I pass it most weeks and have previously enjoyed nibbling the sweet pith of the stem and have cooked the early shoots and leaves in a wild horta dish. It grows on waste ground and thrives in areas that have been scorched, hence its other names fireweed and bombweed. I’m always humbled to discover a common weed that I may thoughtlessly passby has previously been a popular food and drink source.
The health benefits of Ivan tea
Rosebay willowherb has elegant long leaves, pretty pink flowers and burgundy/pink stems making it a striking plant with, it turns out, fantastic health benefits. It was in Miles Irving’s book – The Foragers Handbook that I first discovered its properties as a men’s tea. In fact, Miles suggest that all men should be drinking it regularly due to its possible anti-prostrate cancer properties.
I found myself recalling this information when I heard of a dear friend’s recent health scare ‘down there’. Sharing a walk together we came across the plant, which my friend recognised too. We picked the leaves together, my friend deciding to use the leaves dried for tea, and later I chose to attempt the fermented version. Rosebay willowherb is said to have more vitamin C than rosehips (which has up to 8 times more vitamin C than lemons), as well as contain magnesium and B vitamins and is supportive to the function of the heart and the immune system as well as being caffeine-free. So it’s not just a men’s tea!
Learning a new process of making herbal tea
As well being humbled by my previous lack of knowledge of this health-giving plant, I discovered that there is an art to making Ivan tea. And it isn’t straight forward to master. The russianfoods blog informed me a how many villagers across Russia make a ground version of the tea (and yes, I found a few videos of people making it this way). Though this isn’t the best or traditional method. The traditional method involves wilting, rolling, fermenting and drying the leaves, all at just the right time. Easy right?!
My first batch of leaves dried instantly in my warm summer kitchen. The second batch did the same. My third I didn’t leave to wilt long enough, which then effected the fermenting process (the leaves never went black and stayed with a grassy scent). Eventually I learnt the ideal length of time to wilt the leaves (full instructions below). By the way, my third batch still made a nice cuppa, with that slightly thick texture that black tea has, a rich flavour, though a little grassy too.
How to make a Fermented, Caffeine-free Black Tea from Rosebay willowherb (an old Russian recipe)
First gather the leaves on a dry day. They are best collected when the plant is in flower though before the leaves have started to curl and dry on the plant. You could pick the leaves off one-by-one, though there is a way to collect in bulk, AND leave the flowers in tact. To do this, lightly hold the stem just below the flowers, and run your other hand down the stem, gathering the leaves as you go. Continue.
Next, lay the leaves out to dry. Remove any old ones or stray weeds from different species and leave for around 12 hours out of direct sunlight, or until the leaves are wilted and don’t snap when bent (see image). I made two mistakes at this stage. Firstly I dried the leaves in my sunny kitchen (they dried to a crisp within a few hours!). My next attempt, the leaves with dry enough to bend though were still a bit sappy. Really, they needed another few hours to wilt. Good luck with finding the right time length and temperature! I found 10 hours in my ambient (cooler than my kitchen) office the optimum time, but it depends on the weather.
(The first picture, above shows the leaf bending, but it is still rather sappy, the second is dryer and ready)
Rolling and Drying
Next the leaves need to be rolled, this bruises their surface and enables an aerobic fermentation to occur. The traditional and commercial method involves rolling the leaves between two layers of fabric. As a forager picking for personal use I found it quite therapeutic just to roll the leaves in the palm of my hand. You can roll up to 5 leaves at the same time using this method. Pop the leaves into a ceramic pot and put a lid on, or the first time I did this I used a large glass bowl with a damp cloth on. I think the ceramic pot worked best. Make sure there’s plenty of space around the leaves and turn them periodically.
Leave the leaves for 24 hours to 5 days, allowing them to oxidise, darkening their colour and changing the scent and flavour of the tea. Ideally the freshly cut grass smell will turn to a more floral, fruity fragrance, at this stage the leaves are ready to dry and store. My latest batch had just this – a gorgeous fruity aroma that myself and visiting friends just could stop sniffing! After 5 days my first batch still smelt grassy. I think because they were too fresh when I rolled them and were too tightly packed in the bowl – though I dried them anyway and they still made a nice cuppa.
Finally, spread the oxidised leaves over a baking tray or on dehydrator sheets. Dry at about 75°C (the lowest temperature of your oven) for about 30 minutes or until thoroughly dry. If using an oven, leave the door slightly ajar for the moisture to escape. You can then use the tea immediately, though the flavour will improve over the next 2-4 months.
The perfect cup of wild, fermented, health-giving tea
Apparently, the ideal amount to ingest daily of Ivan tea is 5 grams per person. To make the perfect brew just pour 600 millilitres of boiling water onto 2 teaspoons of the tea and infuse for 10-15 minutes. That makes about 2 mugs of tea.
My humble cup of wild, fermented tea has taught me the subtleties in old, traditional methods which can’t be learnt overnight. I have a renewed respect for age-old practices and for the plant Rosebay willowherb (Chamaenerion angustifolium).
A couple of months ago I lost my sense of smell completely. My world changed and everything tasted of cardboard. Fortunately it was only a temporary loss due to a virus, though it was a fascinating and slightly scary experience. I’ve always known how important […]
(Organic flour, gutweed (Ulva intestinalis) and dulse (Palmaria palmata)) Picnics, according to BBC food, require planning; as much as I agree that some planning is needed, I also want it all – good homemade food and little fuss. With our erratic UK weather, sometimes an […]
I have a utter soft spot for the seaweed known as Irish Moss. When cooked, this seaweed has a fabulous texture, setting ability and taste that makes me melt inside. It’s perfect for setting panna cottas, vegan pates, mousse and for thickening soups. I imagine it’s the mixture of the goodness I’m digesting from this plant combined with a personal preference for its softening qualities that I enjoy.
(Image above: Chocolate panna cotta set with Irish moss, recipe by Rachel Lambert)
Though Irish Moss – also known as Carrageen, Carragheen or Carrageen Moss – is a term that is sometimes used to describe a couple of different seaweed species, sometimes more. I do it myself when I teach my seaweed foraging courses, I group together the species Chondrus crispus and Mastocarpus stellatus in order to help people to find ‘the seaweed(s) that sets panna cottas’. It also helps people recognise the similarities (as well as differences) between these seaweeds. It can seem a little complicated, though basically I’m attempting to simplify things!
Both Chondrus crispus and Mastocarpus stellatus have natural setting and thickening qualities when cooked. Best picked in Spring, it could be that picking these weeds at different times of year effects its abilities to set things, though that’s a different story, for another time.
Which seaweed is the best one for setting panna cotta?
According to Annie Dawe of Ballyandreen Bay in Ireland who apparently picked and sold the very best carrageen in times gone by, the superior variety is Chondrus crispus and the slightly inferior one: Mastocarpus stellatus.* Now as much as I respect old knowledge and traditions I decided I wanted to find out for myself. After all, the ‘best’ could be referring to numerous excellent qualities of either of these seaweeds (more on that another time, or do look at my Carrageen Cough Syrup recipe).
So, last Spring for a seaweed foraging course I made two identical chocolate panna cottas, one was set with Chondrus crispus and the other with Mastocarpus stellatus. I used exactly the same amount of carrageen in both, though perhaps one was a little more chocolaty!
(Left: Mastocarpus stellatata. Right: Chondrus crispus)
On my seaweed courses I teach how to identify both of these seaweeds and also encourage people not to worry about it as both set panna cottas and other such delights. Though which one creates a better set?
Well, with a group of about a dozen course participants, I passed around the panna cottas in turn, introducing each one separately according to the seaweed I had used. Both panna cottas were polished off and the decision was unanimous! There was some preference for one texture over the other as each did have a very slightly different set texture (and yes I had mistakenly made one more chocolaty!), though we agreed that both set perfectly.
So there you have it, the simplest, most rewarding answer: Chondrus crispus and Mastocarpus stellatus both set panna cottas perfectly. I have a lovely Carrageen and White Chocolate Panna Cotta recipe in my Seaweed Foraging Book and you can find carrageen in Health Food stores, at online seaweed suppliers, or you could pick your own and I can show you how to harvest sustainably, where to find and how to identify either of these seaweeds on one of my seaweed courses.
(White Chocolate Panna Cotta from Rachel Lambert’s book: Wild Food Foraging in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly), you can buy the book here.
*The story of Annie Dawe’s best carrageen came from Prannie Rhatigan’s book: Irish Seaweed Kitchen, a book full of recipes, stories and facts about some of our best edible seaweeds.
It’s Elderflower (Sambucus nigra) season, and the time for celebrations and desserts! I share more on Elderflowers, including how and when to pick the best Elderflowers and a recipe for Elderflower cordial and sorbet in my blog. Elderflower cordial is a great way to capture […]
I’ve never really got on with making alcohol. As much as I like processes (I tend to think that people are either predominantly process or goal orientated), whether it is wine or beer, I seem to lack the knack of transforming weeds into a fermented intoxicating liquor. Perhaps I am just not dedicated enough to making and drinking alcohol. Give me the task of making a dessert, or creating a sweet cocktail and I’m all over it, with pleasing results. Ah, I suppose I can’t be great at everything.
Where I fail, thank goodness others succeed at making wild drinkable goodies. I’ve benefited from a few too, I remember about 20 years ago, my boyfriend at the time making the first batch of nettle beer I experienced and loving the result. Actually, I was lucky to get even a sip as he fell head over heals for this spring tonic. Light, refreshing and mildly alcoholic, it disappeared in a matter of days… Making Nettle beer is easier, quicker and less technical than making making other beer and wines, and having had some success myself, I wanted to share the delights of brewing these greens so you too can enjoy this spring drink. Nettle beer has been made for hundreds of years and is traditionally drunk in spring when the nettles are at their best. Have a go yourself;
Nettle Beer Recipe
Light, refreshing and mildly alcoholic, don’t expect this spring tonic to hang around for long. You will need a few days patience while it ferments though, just a few days…
- 3 litres water
- 400 g nettle tops
- 12 g cream of tartar
- 350 g unrefined sugar
- juice of 2 lemons
- 1 tsp yeast
Pour the water into a large pan and bring to the boil, add the nettle tops, lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Strain off the liquid into a large bowl, or saucepan and discard the cooked nettles. Stir in the sugar, lemon juice and cream of tartar and leave to cool. When the liquid is luke warm, add the yeast, cover with a muslin cloth or similar and leave to ferment for 5 days.
Siphon the beer into sterilised flip top bottles and drink soon, or keep in a dark, cool place. Nettle beer has a reputation of exploding (as it keeps on fermenting), so flip top bottles will at least save you from shattering glass. Otherwise, just drink soon.