Going native

I remember one of the first times I had a proper cup of Latvian herbal tea. I had just started singing in my Latvian folklore group and we used to meet at one of the members’ – Aija’s – house. She had a big glass teapot. The newest member came to rehearsal one day with some herbal tea that she had collected and dried over the summer. It had an assortment of flowers and herbs in it, she said, and listed an number of plants that grow wild in Latvian meadows, only few of which I could actually pick out in a lineup. It seemed kind of normal to everyone else: it was chucked into the teapot and covered with boiling water and allowed to steep on the table while we sang. I was mesmerized – as it soaked the dried, shriveled leaves swelled and took shape, and flowers began to unfurl and bloom in the bottom of the pot. The result was a pale yellow liquid which tasted a bit like straw, a little like grass clippings with a hint of honey. Not a very tasty concoction, but I was fascinated nevertheless –impressed and that little bit saddened, because in my pessimistic soul I felt that I would never be privy to such secrets – to be so comfortable with the myriad herbs and weeds and flowers of the field, to know what they were good for, what to pick and how to dry them, and the way in which to blend them to make it taste reasonable. Ten years ago, “fresh off the plane” from Oz, I felt more comfortable with the mainstream English concept of tea: black, or white - and for a real exotic treat you would sometimes drink green oriental tea, or even maybe packaged peppermint, or lemongrass. Other herbal varieties were the stuff of health food stores and alternative medicine, things you could get but wouldn’t willingly drink unless you were a hippy or a health freak.

The herbal tea tradition in Latvia initially bemused me – first time I went to a GP about a stomachache, I was “prescribed” litres of chamomile tea for the next 2 days, a cup every hour or so. And that was it! I promptly ignored the advice, got myself a new GP who believed in chemical intervention, and began to snort derisively every time anyone suggested chamomile tea for an ailment. In the Soviet era (and doubtless, also earlier) herbal teas were used as the first line of medical defense. Talk to any country person and they will know a flower or weed for every complaint.

Once, we rolled up to my family’s country place, Kugures, before the house had been restored. It was early spring, and to our curiosity, the field next to the house was full of old ladies with plastic shopping bags, filling them with what I thought were dandelions growing in the field. On questioning them we found out they were gathering mallepes, or coltsfoot – a smaller, denser, earlier plant similar to the dandelion, that flowered for a short time in early spring – and that these made the perfect treatment for bronchial coughs. Back then pensioners made extra money by gathering herbs and on-selling them to pharmacies. I collected a few myself, and next time I had a cough I drank the brew. It tasted like bitter dirt, and after downing a cup I decided that store-bought cough mixture would do just the trick, thank you very much.

The years passed and I got used to the fact that here, it is “normal” to drink herbal tea during the day – usually loose dried, collected in the early summer including plants such as linden blossom, chamomile, rasaskreslins or lady’s mantle, gailpiesisi or larkspur. I occasionally collected my own conservative range, which I would dry and then not look at for the rest of the year, and have a very modest array of (mostly tea bag) tea at home. When local friends visit I often get a bit embarrassed, because I always get asked “what kind of tea have you got” when I offer a cuppa, and my list of three ordinary varieties usually instigates a regretful pause, followed by a half-hearted, “it’ll have to do” selection.

But last weekend I realized that somehow, somewhere along the line, my thinking has changed. It’s taken longer than 10 years, but the herbal tea culture has got into my psyche. I realized this because I had a horrible cold, and was suffering it out on the weekend at Kugures. My brother and his very Latvian, country-girl girlfriend were there, and as I was moaning and snorting around the kitchen, my brother said, “you sound like you need some pukisu teja” (literally – tea made from little flowers), and his girlfriend sprang into action – she’d just collected some coltsfoot that morning! And some larkspur! And she proceeded to fill my cup a quarter full with fresh yellow petals, pouring boiling water on top. And funnily enough, I found myself taking the cup gratefully, and feeling myself relax, with the thought, “that’s what I needed”: and drinking the cup with the unshakable belief that it would help my cold. The colour, the taste, the idea that it had come from the springtime field, which seems so healthy and sunny now that winter has gone, and so natural. And maybe it helped, and maybe it didn’t. It may have been just a cup of hot water with a bit of vegetation added, but one thing I know for sure: the Latvian herbal culture has finally managed to weave its mystical psychosomatic powers around me. Although I may not have my own store of “bitter dirt flowers” in the pantry, I get it. I totally get the power and beauty of these plants, and the tradition, and the reverence of the sunlight and season that goes into making Latvian herbal teas as special as they are.

3 Responses so far.

  1. Marite says:

    I grew up on herbal tea- tea bag tea, not loose leaf/blossom- but herbal none the less. Of course, Americans don't have the black tea culture of commonwealth countries- but I feel like the herbal tea thing was connected to being Latvian. Interesting...I wonder if it was just my family, or if Latvians in America do the herbal tea thing more than the average American. In any case... my mom used to bring me a cup of chamomile tea with lemon and honey even in the middle of the night if I had a really bad cold... :)

  2. Madeleine says:

    In the Anglo-Irish tradition, just add a shot of whiskey to your tea, or have a pint of Guinness (known internationally for its iron content...!) when you're sick and you'll be fine! :-) Not very mystical...

    I have drunk white-tea-with-two-sugars for as long as I can remember, and in California coffee-country that was stand-out enough. But I didn't really encounter herbal tea until my sister was at Uni and started buying it from Aromas in the Wintergarden - all kinds of berry-teas and citrus teas and so forth, and since then my choice to stay with 'ordinary' melnais teja remains based on taste, primarily. I can't stand chamomile though I have really tried (including chamomile bathroom products and stuff), but I do quite like apricot tea. :-)

  3. Madeleine says:

    Oh - I've just remembered that my English, retired-GP Grammy still 'prescribes' warm, sweet tea as a calming soporific, so maybe European tea-traditions aren't terribly different after all...!

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