Making Fresh Herb Teas

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I first began experimenting with herbal teas, also called tisanes, many years ago while I was in college. At the time, bulk dried herbs, even the more esoteric among them, were readily available in a couple of shops in town, and someone gave me a copy of the now classic book, Back to Eden by Jethro Kloss. Potters Cyclopedia of Medicinal Herbs followed, and a course in herbs by a naturopath out of Utah, John Christopher. My roommates and neighbors became my guinea pigs, and I went from reading about herbs, to drinking herb teas, to growing them to finally traveling to England to study herbal medicine.

But somewhere along the way, I found myself far more interested in drinking and eating my herbs than in approaching them strictly as medicines.

Maybe it was that first delicate, fragrant, grassy cup of tilleul on my first visit to Paris. Or the thick mint tea in tiny demitasse cups served at the Paris mosque, just across from the Jardin des Plantes. Or maybe that very first buttery, fresh herb-laden omelet. All I know is that something about being in France, a country where people take their grub and their herbs seriously, pushed me over the edge.

And after moving on from the wonderful herboristeries (herb pharmacies) of Paris, I came home and began making teas from fresh rather than dried herbs. In case you'd like to try it, I pass along the following tips.

Steep the herbs, don't boil them. One of the most interesting aspects of fresh herb teas is their color--or lack of color. They are usually clear, and they only take on the
familiar "green" look of dried herb teas if you boil them, which you
should not do as they will quickly lose flavor and aroma. To concoct a pot of fresh herb tea, simply take a handful or so of herbs of your choice (or about 1/4 cup of stripped leaves), crush them a bit in your hands to liberate some of their oils, then place them into a pre-warmed tea pot. Pour in water just off the boil and let steep for about 10 minutes. The resulting tea should be almost clear. Because the herbs are fresh, you may notice flavors and aromas that you never noticed before because in the drying process, herbs lose many of their nuances.

Leave them alone. If you prefer a fresh herb iced tea, similar rules apply. Take a few handfuls herbs, crush them slightly, then place them in a covered, clear jar so the loosely fill it. Fill the jar with water (room temp or cold is fine), then allow it to sit overnight or for several hours at the very least. Despite the allure of "sun tea," I haven't found much difference between leaving the tea blend in the sun, on the counter, or in the refrigerator. The key is the length of time it sits, not the temperature. (For a quick fix of iced tea, you can pour steeped hot tea over a glass filled with ice cubes.) As with hot tea, the resulting liquid will be clear and the flavors more delicate and complex than with dried herbs.

Make your own flavors. Sometimes I enjoy using just one single herb in a tea. Mint or lemon balm or even pine needles are some of my favorite single-herb teas. But I also enjoy playing around with some imaginative combinations, often using herbs, such as basil or tarragon, that most people only encounter in a culinary context. My favorite iced tea blend, for instance, contains 4 parts mint, 2 parts tarragon, and 2 parts basil.

Enjoy experimenting with your own flavor blends!