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 I am to live now, rather than several hundred years ago. And, how sad it is that many of our talented predecessors who knew so much about plants and their uses, were ostracised or even killed for their knowledge and practices.
Having perused the jars of herbs presented as museum exhibits, I recognised many herbs that I use today as medicine, flavourings and ingredients. From top left to bottom right: Hawthorn leaves and flowers , gorse flowers (Ulex gallii and Ulex europaeus), elder flowers (Sambucus nigra), yarrow leaves and flowers, dandelion leaves (Taraxacum officinalis) and bell heather flowers (Erica cinerea).
There were several accounts of Cornish witches making confessions of their practices, mostly in the 1600s, which really brought the situation home. So, back to the 21st Century, where foraging is currently 'cool' and in fashion. Where some of us, maybe many of us, wish to keep plant- knowledge alive.
The medicinal plant 'Ling'
I can't remember if the herb Ling, aka Heather, (Calluna vulgaris) was in the museum. Though it would have fitted in well. Calluna is derived from the Greek word kalluno, which means to sweep, as the twigs of heather were often used as brushes and brooms. The broom, of course, was one of the symbols associated with witches. In actual fact, it seems that this association was an easy way to degrade the practices of common, working people, who would be the very people who would sweep and clean.
Ling/Heather was also used as a medicinal herbal tea. Both the leaves and flowers can be seeped in freshly boiled water for 10 minutes and has been used in European folklore for hundreds of years. It's qualities as tea are also for cleansing, in particular the bladder and other gastrointestinal issues. The active ingredients of quercetin are excellent at treating urinary and kidney infections by flushing out toxins and infections from the system. Heather tea may also be beneficial for inflammatory diseases like arthritis, or muscular pains.
It is always advised to consult with a medical herbalist when treating a health condition, as heather tea should not be used for long-term use. However, occasional or short-term use as part of a body cleanse could be appropriate if supervised by such a professional.
What is Ling?
Ling is a moorland plant that flowers between July and September. It can be found across Europe and North America.
A cup of Ling tea
Use a tablespoon of ling leaves and flowers per cup and sip before bed when you need to sleep, or for health conditions (see notes above). It has a delicate flavour and can be used as a version of moorland tea.
Mug by Devon potter Mary Cutchee, references: Food for Free (Richard Mabey) and The Illustrated Book of Herbs their Medicinal and Culinary Uses (Jiri Stodola and Jan Volak).
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 flowers. Followed by heather, also known as Ling (Calluna vulgaris) with its smaller, pinkish flowers. Bright yellow Gorse flowers (Ulex europaeus and Ulex gallii), one of my favourite moorland plants, are scattered throughout.
When the air is warm and the wind is blowing the right way, I love breathing in these subtle scents, of which heather also have a reputation for inducing sleep. Being softer than the prickly gorse bushes, I can say from experience that heather makes a great springy bed to take a nap on, and so hardy that it just bounces back afterwards. I wonder how many weary travellers have used heather in this way, as a single plant can be up to 50 years old.
I, almost, find it enough to gaze at this undulating landscape of colour, smell it and doze on it. However my foraging memories usually drive me to gather a few sprigs for my kitchen creations too. Previously I've worked with a cook at a National Trust property who made heather syrup to drizzle over mini steamed puddings - delicious. Though I also simply like tea.
Apparently 'moorland tea' was one of the poet Robert Burns' favoured tea. His version was heather tops (ling) combined with the dried leaves of bilberry, blackberry, thyme and wild strawberry. It sounds like a perfect heath-land combination and I'm sure Robert Burns knew a fair few things about tea. Yet, how one likes a brew is such a personal thing. For me, my go-to combination is bell heather and gorse. Perhaps because I know these two so well, or perhaps because I haven't tasted Robert's 5-herb cuppa. I've made a mental note to try and recreate his moorland tea blend, though meanwhile bell heather and gorse are so easy to spot that I find myself returning to my own mix.
When and where and how to pick
Heather and gorse can be found in heath-lands, moors, bogs and mountain slopes across Europe and North America. The presence of heather usually indicates poor soil, as it prefers mildly acidic soils and thrives best when it has good exposure to sunlight. Over the last 200 years the amount of moorland in the UK has reduced by over 80%, hence more recent efforts to preserve and protect these areas and the plants and wildlife that rely on it.
I love sitting by heather and watching the bees feed and taking my time to pick a few flower heads from each bush, ensuring my foraging efforts are practically invisible. Gorse is always in flower somewhere (as in the UK we have 2 varieties that also hybridise) and heather flowers from July through September.
My moorland tea mix and how to make it
A blend of fresh gorse flowers and bell heather flowers can be used to make a herbal tea, though I prefer to dry them. That way, I can make tea when I want it and use it through autumn and winter. Today's a perfect herbal tea day - rainy and cool outside and ideal for hot, soothing drinks.
I dry the flowers on tea towels in a warm place. It should take two days maximum. Then I place in clean, sterilised jars and use a teaspoon or two of each herb for a cup of tea. It is good with a spoon of honey in too. As I sip my homemade moorland tea, I'm temporarily transported to the moors where I see, smell and nap on these late summer bushes and am flooded with good memories again.
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).