Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Drink your garden

Every sustainability expert says to eat your garden, but on wintry days, I mostly drink it. As much as we're all supposed to consume endless glasses of water, I can't stand that greasy cold lump sitting sluggishly in my stomach, so I turn to herbal teas. Yet most commercial preparations taste like stale grass; and anyway, the packaging gets me down. It's an exercise in how not to be sustainable: first, strip off the plastic wrap, then open the cardboard box, then unwrap the paper cover and only then will you get to the tea – which is in a bag. How ridiculous.

But a while ago I worked out that I can drink my garden. Food miles: zero. Packaging: nil. Even better, unlike even the fanciest dried herbal teas, my garden really does taste fresh. When I want a hot caffeine-free drink, I put on the kettle and head outside with a pair of scissors; it's ready in minutes.

Here are my four favourite infusions. All are very simple, and none have more than one ingredient. Think of them not so much as recipes as reminders that even in the depths of winter, good things grow.

Cumquat Infusion

The problem with cumquats is that their skins are delicious and their insides, horrid. One way to get around this is to ignore the insides altogether. This is our favourite after-dinner drink: it's delicious, soothing, and aids digestion.

Take five or six whole cumquats and place them in a pot. (Do not prick them, as you want to extract the flavour from the oils in the skin, not the from the bitter insides.) Cover them with boiling water and leave to infuse for five or six minutes, then pour.

Pineapple Sage Tisane

Pineapple sage is a delightful herb. It has the grace to flower in the winter, when things are bleak, and sends great sprays of hot pink flowers into the air. The flowers, when sucked, have a small drop of sweet nectar which children (and I) love; my daughters all spend long minutes at the bush plucking and sucking, sucking and plucking, savouring the experience of drinking flowers as much as the rush of nectar. Even the leaves are highly scented, and they make a refreshing tisane. The drink is fragrant with a light, sweet flavour and the faint aroma of pineapple; this is not a savoury sage.

Take a small stem of leaves, about 15cm long; if there are flowers attached, so much the better. Shake it well to dislodge any insects from the flowers, then pop the stem into a pot and cover with boiling water. Leave it to draw for five minutes. If there are flowers in the pot and your pot is glass, you can watch them leach colour, a quietly meditative activity. Serve.

Canary Tea

Canarino tea is served in Florence; canarino means 'canary', and when you make this tea you will see why it has this name. The cynical among us might call it something else – wee tea comes to mind – but the yellow really is so bright, so clear, and so strongly reminiscent of canaries, that the cynics can go make themselves a cup of coffee and keep their mouths shut for once. This lovely idea comes from Lora Zarubin's luxurious book I am Almost Always Hungry.

Zarubin's book is a great favourite in our household for its oyster shooters; and yet, of course, I don't follow even that recipe. Zarubin recommends infusing vodka with ginger, then making oyster shooters from the flavoured vodka. We, however, have a passion for cucumber vodka – it's so crisp! and so cold! – so we infuse our vodka thus; and several years ago, at my husband's 40th birthday party, we threw a party featuring an outrageous number of cucumber oyster shooters. Lucky guests finished off with a highly alcoholic slice of cucumber, and I was followed around the kitchen by desperate adults begging for more vegetables. It was a memorable event. Or unable to be remembered, depending, of course, on how many oysters one consumed.

Canary tea is a whole different kettle of fish. Unlike vodka shooters, it won't give you a headache the next day, and won't be talked about years later. In fact, it is non-alcoholic, caffeine free, organic, vegan, non-GMO and fair trade: my across-the-street neighbour gives me lemons and we give her eggs, which seems a fair enough trade to me!

Using a veggie peeler, peel away the skins of two lemons, taking as little pith as possible. Place the peel into a teapot, cover it with boiling water, and let it steep for five minutes. Serve immediately. You can add herbs if you like, but I enjoy the pure taste of lemon.

(Many people drink lemon juice in hot water these days. My dentist goes pale when I say such things: the lemon juice strips tooth enamel. This infusion has a gentler flavour and lacks the acidity of lemon juice; it's a lovely and less damaging alternative.)

Rosemary Tisane

Many years ago, when my mother was slowly dying and I was frantic, my husband and I went to a conference. We wound up in a fancy hotel, and I felt trapped by the plane ride, the hotel, the city; I just wanted to go home. I couldn't eat or rest, so we went for a walk while I raged and wept – and then we came across a godsend: great swathes of rosemary in an urban planting scheme. Long tendrils sprawled out of planter boxes, and the air was filled with its healing scent. I picked several long branches and took them back to the hotel. There I switched on the kettle, laid the sprigs in a basin, poured boiling water over them and inhaled. Finally, I relaxed; finally I felt hungry. We left the rosemary to steep while we went out for dinner at last. When we came back, the room smelled safe and I was, just for a little while, whole again.

I have always found rosemary to be a great healing herb when it comes to matters of the heart; more practically, it aids digestion after a heavy meal. Take a good sprig of fresh rosemary, maybe 15cm long, and place it in the pot; you will, of course, need to snip it into a few pieces to fit. Cover with boiling water and leave to infuse for five minutes, then serve.

There are many other herbs you can drink with more or less success – for example, lemon verbena is delicious, while lemon balm tastes soapy – but always check an herbal to ensure that it is safe to drink. The Complete Book of Herbs and Herb Gardening, while not exhaustive, is fairly comprehensive. My next project is to plant out Greek Mountain Tea, also known as ironwort; it is said that a cup a day will chase away all ills and with three sicky snotty kids in the house who mostly give their ills to me, I could use any sort of immune boost I can find! With any luck – that is, if the chickens don't escape and dig it up – I'll be able to report back in the spring.

No teapots were harmed during the writing of this post.
I am Almost Always Hungry: Seasonal Menus and Memorable Recipes The Complete Book of Herbs and Herb Gardening


  1. Oh I wish I could appreciate herbal teas... but I just can't. I'm afraid I like earl grey with loads of soy milk. Although I do have lots of visitors who request peppermint tea so I've just got my hands on some peppermint seeds from Diggers and I'll see how I go making my own.

  2. I have pineapple sage in the garden but have only ever added it to cold drinks. Will try it as a hot drink for sure after reading this.
    Mint tea (I grow moroccan mint) is a favourite in our house and good for sore little tummies :)

  3. Our mint tea WAS good until the chooks broke out, knocked off the extra just-in-case cover, and dug up the mint all in a day's work. Sheesh. Now we're getting a competent person in to build a chooky Alcatraz.

    As for soy milk Veggiegobbler... well, each to their own!