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).