By David Hawke -- Tea time! For many people that break from the daily routine to have a cup o' tea is a cherished moment: quiet time, warm drink, think for a moment, rest the weary legs and feet… it's obvious why this tradition is so valued.
Teas of many types and tastes have been created by people world-wide, all with the simple concept of using warm water to obtain a tasty drink from plants. While mainly enjoyed for its immediate flavour, the vitamins and nutrients contained within are also essential for staying healthy, especially over a long winter.
March is typically maple syrup time, but there are other taste treats waiting as well. If you have a small campfire going as part of your outing, take a moment to brew up some local nutritious teas. A small pot for warming the water will be needed, and perhaps a ladle. (If you don't have a small campfire going, well, you can also do the following in your kitchen... just less ambiance.)
First on the menu of tea-tasting is hemlock tea… and no, this is NOT the hemlock tea that is poisonous! (If it were, I fear my reading audience would be quickly downsized.) That nasty drink comes from a wildflower that grows in wet areas; this hemlock tea is made from the tree species that grows prolifically in our region.
When gathering your wild tea supplies you may confuse hemlock with balsam fir. Hemlock leaves (needles) are small and lacy-looking, balsam fir needles tend to be comb-like and quite stiff. Another good way to tell which is what is that hemlock has a dark green upper surface and a light green underside.
The fresh needles from the tips of hemlock branches are added to simmering water and let steep for about five minutes. If left longer, or put into boiling water, the flavour may become very, shall we say, porcupine-like (trust me, if you have ever had porcupine-like flavoured tea, you will agree with the descriptive). The blanched hemlock needles are removed and a gentle green tea has been created. If you have used balsam fir (and have obviously skipped reading the above paragraph) the tea is quite rich right from the start... still edible just a tad strong!
Next to be tried is cedar tea, made from a tree that has long been held in high regard as a healing species. White cedar is fairly common in our area, but if you buy it at a nursery for planting in a hedgerow, it goes by the name 'arbour vitae'. Arbour is French for tree, and vitae means life… the tree of life.
During a nasty winter a few years back, explorer Jacque Cartier and his European crew became unexpectedly ice-bound in the St. Lawrence River. Not having brought supplies to carry them through the winter, their food rations soon became very limited, not even close to the current Canada Food Guide. Scurvy set in and the men began to get very sick.
Once the local population of First Nations became aware of the situation they set up the first known Soup Kitchen and fed the men a tea made from conifer trees. The very high Vitamin C content of cedar tea saved the seamen, and Captain Jack reverently named the miracle ingredient 'the tree of life'. Sipping on the mildly pungent tea while hearing this story is a wonderful way to understand history.
And the third tea on the menu today is made from sumac, the fuzzy shrub of open fields and edges of rock cuts. Staghorn sumac has a nasty cousin, poison sumac, but the two differ greatly in appearance. The stuff we use for tea is the red clusters of fuzzy 'berries' found on the ends of the branches. Technically these are not berries, but are called drupes. No matter, it’s the part that you want to collect for excellent tea making.
Boil the water and set to the side of the fire. Take a cluster of sumac drupes and gently crush the mass and drop into the hot water. As with hemlock, you don't want to leave the ingredients in too long, as tannic acid from the stem may start leaching into the water and create a bitter taste. It's just the tasty malic acid found in the hair-like fuzz that you want flavouring the water.
Once the clusters are removed, the water is a light pink colour and tastes like a wonderful wild lemonade. Some say that maple syrup or honey can be added to sweeten, but I don't think it's needed. However, prior to drinking you may want to filter the tea through a coffee filter or folds of cheese cloth as the tiny hairs break loose and float around. (If you failed to pack along a filter you can do my method of "grit yer teeth and spit" ... but it's a method that is not always socially accepted.)
The calendar says March is looming, but the thermometer still says winter, which means that a warm cup of tea is still required daily. Red Rose, Tetley and Lipton have little to fear in regards to a plummeting market share, but a taste of the wild side is fun now and then.
© David J. Hawke 2018