“There is something in the nature of tea that leads us into a world of quiet contemplation of life.” — Lin Yutang, The Importance Of Living
When January winds moan around the eaves, or February decides to pepper sleet against the windowpanes like buckshot, a cup of hot tea can warm you both inside and out.
I’m generally an inveterate coffee drinker. Most of my mornings begin with a mug or two of dark-roast, industrial-strength brew. Yet during the dreary, blood-congealing days of winter’s white heart, I regularly follow my initial java fix by switching to tea for the remainder the day.
Hot tea somehow soothes and revitalizes simultaneously. There’s really nothing so cozily comforting to sip. Snugged in my fireside rocker, or working hard to herd another string of words into shape at my writing table, tea provides both solace and sustenance, a perfect antidote to the latest raw onslaught of ice and snow.
I order my traditional teas by the loose pound and brew them by the pot-full. Hearty blacks such as Irish Breakfast, smokily distinctive lapsang-souchong, or a zesty Assam blend flavored with orange peel and sweet spices. However, in the interests of heading off caffeine overload, come mid-afternoon and through evening until bedtime, I either opt for decaffeinated versions or turn to quaffing cups of herbal tea.
Terminology sticklers will insist such infusions are tisanes, not tea. And they’re correct. Genuine tea is obtained only from one of four recognized varieties of a single plant, Camellia sinensis.
I’m not that nitpicky. I consider any botanically-based drink that doesn’t contain parts of the Camellia sinensis plant, but is steeped in hot water, poured into a cup and perhaps sweetened with a dollop of honey, to be an herbal tea. Whether derived from leaf or root, bark or bloom, berry or bud.
Moreover, in my mind there are two sorts of herbal teas — those which might be considered medicinal, and the ones you drink solely for their taste … pleasure teas. We’ll forget about “medicinal” teas today and concentrate on delightfully delicious herbal teas that help ward off winter.
Yes, herbal tea can be found in surprising variety at most local supermarkets. But I’m old-school, a forage-it-for-free practitioner. This approach appeals not only to my self-sufficiency/survivalist leanings, but also ticks an ingrained Celtic thriftiness box. Gathering my own tea makings additionally gives the added satisfaction of controlling exactly what is and isn’t in my teacup. No questions regarding any pre-processing additives or safe-handling issues. From plucking to palate, I know precisely what I’m drinking.
These self-procured, “wild” herbal teas, come in all imaginable colors and tastes. Yellow, green, red, brown—sweet, bitter, tangy, sour, and flavors so odd or unique they deny classification. Among the tastiest, easily-gathered local plants for homemade herbal teas are spice bush, rose hips, camomile, blackberry leaf, pine needle, bee balm and sorrel.
However, my all-time favorite is sassafras. I purely love sassafras tea! Sassafras tea has been a staple of my winter-sipping routine for as long as I can remember.
When I was a kid, Mom would take a handful of dried sassafras roots and toss them into the teakettle with perhaps three quarts of cold water. Soon the entire house would fill with the heady, unmistakable fragrance of the steeping tea. About twenty minutes later we’d savor cups of spicy-rich, amber-red brew which — sweetened with brown sugar or comb honey — tasted like a combination of cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, and root beer.
Sassafras gathering expeditions were a family affair, and might take place anywhere from October to April — though they usually occurred about the middle of January, when cabin fever loomed and the craving for tea gave a trip to the woods the legitimacy of purpose.
Equipment for root gathering was pretty basic — a small, sturdy, round-nosed shovel for digging, a hand axe for chopping the uncovered roots, and a burlap gunnysack for toting home the piquant plunder.
Back in the kitchen, the roots were washed in cold water and scrubbed clean of any remaining dirt. Larger roots were chopped into smaller pieces. The sassafras roots and chunks were then allowed to dry before being stored in gallon-sized widemouth jars which we kept in a hall closet.
Unfortunately, my current supply of dried sassafras is not going to last out the winter. Uncharacteristically, I got too busy last fall, trying to finish certain remodeling tasks on our cottage, and failed to go on a digging trip. Now the restrictive limitations of upcoming eye surgery means I won’t be able to resupply before March.
This unfortunate oversight just goes to show how askew a fellow’s priorities can get if he doesn’t spend sufficient time team rambling about afield. I intend to pour myself another cup of pennyroyal tea and contemplate the error of my ways. …
Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at [email protected]