The Story of Rosebay Willowherb
At one point in time, Rosebay Willowherb was all the rage in Britain. Its taste is reported to have been more popular than the classic black tea in the late 19th Century, but the reasons for it falling out of fashion are less clear. Russian sources claim that the East India Company began a targeted smear campaign against 'Ivan's tea'. The aim was to discredit the delicious Russian brew so as to remove it as a competitor from the British market. Others point to the collapsing of the commercial production in Russia in the wake of the Russian Revolution. Either way, in the 21st Century, Koporye tea, or Ivan's tea, remains something of a hidden treasure.
Years before Chinese tea arrived in Russia, Rosebay Willowherb had been used by locals to brew a hot beverage renowned for its health properties and generally wholesome effects. When Chinese tea began penetrating Russian markets in the 19th century, Rosebay Willowherb was championed as a local, low-cost substitute. The recipe for its preparation mimicked that of the Chinese loose-leaf, and the resulting liquor strongly resembled the sub-tropical tea, even to the extent that it was sometimes fraudulently exported as 'regular' tea by unscrupulous merchants.
Rosebay Willowherb, or Fireweed
The plant that was used by the Russian peasants for Ivan's tea is called Rosebay Willowherb, a herb that grew in particular abundance around the tea's manafacturing base, in the village of Koporye, near St Petesburg. A tall perennial herb with elegant pink flowers and a reddish stem, this plant is found throughout the Northern hemisphere, where it has always been enjoyed by local peoples for its medicinal properties and for its plentitude, as a foodstuff. In North America it is sometimes known as fireweed, due to its rapid reclamation of land just scorched by forest fire. In wartime Britain, Rosebay's pink flowers were often seen amongst the rubble and ruins of buildings levelled during the Blitz.
The young shoots of Rosebay Willowherb have long been collected by Native American peoples as a food, while the more mature stems were harvested for their pith - a rich source of vitamin C and pro-vitamin A. In Alaska, syrups and jellies are traditionally made from fireweed, and in Canada, where Rosebay Willowherb is the floral emblem of Yukon, fireweed shoots are boiled and eaten as 'wild asparagus'.
But it is of course the herb's Russian usage as a tea in which we are most interested. Although Ivan's tea will perhaps never regain its pre 19th Century popularity as an internationally known export, it is still commonly sold and consumed in Russia. The abundance, and wide accessibility of Rosebay makes it's production a very localised process, but the tea's processing method is a widely known recipe descended from its Koporye haydays, several hundred years ago.
Making tea from Rosebay Willowherb
The popularity of Rosebay Willowherb tea perhaps lies in the similarity of its production to that of 'regular' Chinese tea. It too can be 'fermented' in the same manner as the leaves of Camellia Sinensis, leading to a richly flavoured and deeply coloured brew that moves beyond the disappointing blandness of some herbals. Leaves are picked when the Rosebay Willowherb is at the beginning of its flowering season, throughout July and August. They are then spread out on a cloth where they'll be left to wilt in the shade for about a day.
To kickstart the tea's 'fermentation', or oxidisation, the leaves will be lightly hand rolled until they take on a darker, and slightly juicy appearance. With the bulk of the hard work complete, the Rosebay leaves are left in a warm place to mature and develop their fresher grassy notes into a more complete, fruity flavour. The final step in the process is the drying, which traditionally takes place in clay pots, cooked in Russian stoves. Koporye tea is a particular interesting herbal because it is often aged in order to develop deeper tones and a richer flavour. The result is a substance that resembles conventional black tea in colour but that may boast a slightly stronger aroma.
With tea leaves now no longer costing the fortune they once did, Koporye tea isn't drunk as a cheaper alternative to Chinese tea, the focus having shifted to its numerous health benefits. Being caffeine free, and mildly sedative Rosebay Willowherb is often brewed in place of regular tea closer to bedtime. Besides its relaxing effect, it is also well known for its anti-inflammatory properties and as an aid to digestion. Rich in vitamins C and A, it is drunk as a general tonic for the whole system, but particularly so at night and after meals.
But while acknowledging Rosebay's long history as a tonic, and recognizing its medicinal properties, we more firmly believe that it deserves to be drunk on the fine merit of its flavour, as a pleasant variation on regular loose-leaf tea. Our 'Ivan's tea' of choice was aged over the summer months of 2016, and exhibits a deep, rich flavour not dissimilar to fruity, red wine.
You can buy it [here].