Tissanes or ‘teas’ of fruits or herbs have become, over the past decade or two, steadily more popular, and more widely available. In the UK, almost all supermarkets – including our small island co-ops – stock a variety of these drinks ; and they can be ordered at most restaurants – and even the humblest of cafés. However, they’re almost all in tea-bag form, and as mouth-watering as a cardboard pizza. Tissanes freshly-made with freshly-picked are simply unavailable – except perhaps in some celebrity cook’s niche-riche eatery.
And yet, many of the very best herbal teas are easy to grow in the UK, even in a pocket-sized urban garden or balcony ; and even here in the Outer Hebrides! Our firm favourites are fennel and lemon verbena – both originating in the mediterannean, but both doing well here in a well-drained, sheltered spot, ideally south-facing.
That said, in our walled garden, the fennel grows well outdoors against the east wall of the garden, ie west-facing : we haven’t had much success drying it for winter stores, so we enjoy it only at its best, flourishing in our short but intense summers.
Lemon verbena will grow well and be productive outdoors, but it definitely much prefers to be in a warm greenhouse, where it will grow prolifically, producing an abundance of leaves that are tender and delightfully aromatic.
There’s absolutely no doubt that the very best way to enjoy these herbs as tissanes is to pick them when they are growing strongly (here that’s May to mid July) and full of vigour, and on a dry day in warm sunshine ; and to use them immediately. And whilst fennel does not dry well – for winter stores, lemon verbena does.
Lemon verbena dries quickly and thoroughly, and if done right, it will retain most of the low-volatility essential oils that give the verbena the distinctive lemony zing that justifies its name.
This is how we dry lemon verbena. We select long green stems (no brownish hardwood) with tender leaves, and load them into a dehydrator, if necessary cutting up the stems to the length of the unit. We set the controls to 45degC (definitely not more than 50degC) and the timer for 12-14 hrs (usually overnight). The leaves should be just crisp – not even slightly leathery – and the stems will just withstand a little bending.
Run the tips of thumb and two fingers along the lengths of the stems, stripping off the leaves into a bowl : and then fill air-tight jars over the bowl, to avoid bits going everywhere. It’s important to get the dried leaves sealed in the jars whilst they are still warm – before they get a chance to re-hydrate with moisture in the air. (Alternatively, use a vacuum sealer to pack to jar-sized quantities of leaves ; which, when needed, are transferred to an air-tight jar for intermittent use.) With the leaves stored in a cool dark cupboard, unopened, these leaves will keep for nine months to a year without significant loss or spoiling of flavour.
Tissanes made with these lemon verbena leaves – made in a tea pot just big enough for the number of cups, and a large pinch of leaves per person – will be very nearly as good as the fresh-cut. On a sunny day in January, it’s like summer in a cup!