I want to show you how easy everyday herbalism is, how it is mostly an extension of eating, because food is our first medicine, and that many of the herbs you already use, whether that’s as camomile or mint tea or chilli to spice your food, you can grow yourself. I like very simple recipes that I can make easily and quickly.
I never thought I’d write this, but there turns out to be a right and a very wrong way to make herbal tea. Our grandmothers made tea properly in a pot; we, the children of convenience and mass-produced teabags, make tea terribly, and it's nothing to do with how strong it looks. It’s about capturing the volatile oils that do all the magical stuff. There are two types of tea for herbs, an infusion or a decoction.
How to make a cup of herbal tea
Decoction refers to gently simmering your herbs in boiling water, and tends to be used with material that is tougher, such as roots, barks and seeds. An infusion is simply a cup of tea made by steeping the leaves, flowers and non-woody parts of the plant in either hot or cold water. You can use fresh or dried herbs. Tear or cut up whole leaves to open the cell structures and release the chemical constituents. You will, however, have to use a greater volume of fresh herbs than dried to compensate for the higher water content. If you find instructions calling for one part dried herbs, say 1 teaspoon, then you will need to use three parts fresh herbs, as in 3 teaspoons. Or, put another way, 1 teaspoon of dried herbs equals 1 tablespoon of fresh. The truth of the matter is that a teaspoon can vary vastly depending on whether you crush, grind or chop the herb, but in weight terms you are looking for 1g of dried herbs or 3g of fresh herbs in a cup of water, which for ease I have made 250ml, because, let’s face it, everyone’s cups are slightly different. Warm your teapot or cup by swilling some boiling water around in it, then disperse this. To save water I put this in my watering can for my houseplants, knowing by the time I get round to watering it will be cool. If you are making a pot, use 1 teaspoon of dried herb for each cup. Add 1 cup of water, 250ml, for each teaspoon of herbs in the pot and put the lid on immediately. If you are making a single cup, use a saucer. This bit is the most important part of the whole process; all those volatile oils are being lost to the air around if you don’t do this. The more aromatic the herb is, the more volatile oils there are to lose.
The tea should be steeped for 10–15 minutes. You can drink the tea hot or cold, sweetened with honey or not. For medicinal purposes hot tea is usually recommended.
If you are using seeds and don’t wish to make a decoction, then bash the seeds a little before making the tea, as this will release the volatile oils from the cells.
Another alternative is to make a cold infusion or a sun tea, where the herbs used are in the same concentration as hot tea but are left for 6–12 hours in a sealed pot or jar. I use large Kilner jars for this. I often leave the tea on a warm windowsill so that the sun can naturally brew the infusion. This tea never tastes as strong as tea made with boiling water, but it is refreshing and just as healthful. Cleavers with some added lemon or cucumber is particularly refreshing. I also like a nettle infusion made the same way and often find making litre batches an easier way to consume the herb than hot tea. Likewise, marshmallow is much better made in a cold infusion than hot as more of the active constituents are present this way.
Summer herbal drink ideas
To make pleasing ice cubes add a single borage flower to each well before you put the tray in the freezer. The flowers can be added to sun tea (where you use the sun to brew the flavour into water, see page xx) or to flavour water with the delicious taste of cucumber. Likewise, they make a lovely addition to summer salads. The leaves can be used to make a nice after-dinner drink to aid digestion. Use 1 teaspoon of dried leaves per cup, and limit to 1 cup a day because the leaves are known to contain alkaloids. Alternatively, if wilting the leaves, drink the remaining water. Borage tea tastes best with lemon verbena, lemon balm or a lemon slice added for a little flavour.
Numerous digestive tea recipes include artichoke, such as Vietnamese iced tea, which often adds basil seed, pandan and dried loganberries with lump sugar. The simplest way to make the tea is to take a large artichoke head, slice it in half, cover with water and then boil for 30 minutes. Allow the water to cool and remove the head and enjoy, with or without honey or sugar, adding ice to serve. If you want to save the heart, you could just boil the artichoke you would in preparation for eating it and save the cooking liquid to drink. Iced artichoke tea is delicious and works perfectly as an after-dinner bitter or between the main course and pudding. Alternatively drink before a meal to stimulate digestion. The cooking liquid can be stored in a rubber-sealed preserving jar in the fridge for several days.
Lemon balm can be consumed regularly (as long as you don’t have a thyroid condition), particularly as a tea. For a light infusion try a teaspoon of leaves; for a stronger brew you can increase this to 4–6g infused for 10 minutes. This can be taken morning and evening or when needed. This is my go-to tea for an upset stomach, if I am a little hungover or just need a quiet break from the world.
Lemon balm sun tea
2 or 3 sprigs lemon balm, gently bruised (or 1 tablespoon dried leaves)
1 slice lemon
Combine ingredients and water and leave a 1-litre glass jar or jug in the sun for roughly 4 hours. You may wish to cover the opening with muslin to keep insects out; the sun will gently brew the leaves, creating a mild, refreshing drink. If there’s no sun around, you can use lukewarm boiled water instead.
A tea of dried leaves and flowers can be drunk to reduce fevers, muscular pain, colds and flu, meadowsweet tea is very delicious infused in water for 24 hours and drunk with ice.