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Just my cup of tea
A French evening ritual
It’s a rare rainy day in Arles today. Rain is one of my favorite sounds, cozy and calming. I love what it signals, the end of summer tourist season, the return of the streets and the café terraces to the locals.
It also means thinking ahead at the market. Time to gather the last of the summer abundance and squirrel it away for winter. I’ve already made and frozen a big batch of ratatouille. The tangle of sweet summer vegetables will be a ray of sunshine in late November. Last week I stocked up on fresh cranberry and white beans. Shelled and bagged in the freezer, I’ll have enough for a whole winter’s minestrone.
One of my favorite yearly rituals is buying bouquets of fresh lemon verbena, verveine in French, to dry for tisane - herbal tea.
Tisanes have a long tradition in France, both culinary and medicinal. Think of an old fashioned apothecary shop, the ceiling hung with bouquets of drying herbs, roots and flowers. You’ll see chamomile or verveine tisane served after dessert at a French dinner, a warm ending to linger over for those who don’t tolerate the late night caffeine of espresso. If you have a sore throat, someone will offer you an infusion de thyme leaves with honey – antiseptic and calming. After a particularly heavy meal, to avoid a crise de foie (the French are very concerned about their livers), you’ll be given fennel seed or mint tisane for digestion. These are not just old wives’ tales. The French don’t talk much about “superfoods” and antioxidants, but they do know what has always worked.
My herbal tea habit comes from my French mother-in-law. She is tiny, beautiful, stylish, whisp thin, everything you imagine the ideal French “woman of a certain age” to be. She also eats like the ideal French woman – with great pleasure, a glass of red wine, and never between meals. I strive to imitate her, with varying levels of success. But one thing I have adopted, particularly in the winter, is her evening pot of lemon verbena tisane each night before bed. My son likes it with honey or agave syrup while he’s finishing his homework. I find it helps me set in motion a positive bedtime routine.
I’m one of those people who needs to consciously prepare for winter. My son and I are off to the States next week for Halloween, and I know when I get back, between jetlag and daylight savings time, I’ll have to work really hard to keep myself upright. I’ve been suffering from this hibernation instinct (most would call it Seasonal Affective Disorder) since my early twenties. Anyone who can answer the question “How are you?” with “It’s February.” knows what I mean.
For me, staying awake means sleeping well. And conscious nighttime rituals help me do that. I need to stop eating after I leave the dinner table. I need to put down the phone before bed and pick up a book. I need to delete the streaming apps so I don’t binge watch, make To Do lists on paper so my head is not running 100 miles an hour when I shut my eyes.
Last winter went better than usual. It may have been the Light Therapy Lamp I finally bought (like spending a half hour each morning in a florescent lit shopping mall), but my husband suspects it was the cat.
We adopted a sweet calico kitten, Lili, in May 2022, and I must admit, 5 minutes of her purring unconditional fuzz is the best medicine. (Doesn’t she look comfy? In my next life I’m coming back as a cat. My cat.)
A cup of tea doesn’t solve all the winter blues, but rituals help. So does a kitty, and a pretty antique teapot. Thank you, Aunt Joyce.
If you don’t see a bouquet of lemon verbena at the farmers market, start with a bunch of fresh mint from the supermarket. Making herbal teas at home is fresher and cheaper than buying teabags.
Attach a bunch of herbs with a string or a rubber band. Dry the herbs hanging upside down from a hook or the knob of a kitchen cabinet for a few days. Try to avoid humid spots near the sink or the stove. When the leaves are completely dried out and brittle, take off the rubber band or string, separate the individual stems of herbs and pluck the leaves. You can leave the leaves spread in a casserole dish for another day or two, just to make sure they are completely dried out. Store in an airtight container for the winter. To make your tisane, add a small handful of dried leaves to a teapot, fill with boiling water. Leave to steep for 5-10 minutes. Remove the leaves and enjoy. (When I make thyme tisane for a sore throat, I prefer fresh thyme leaves to dried. If you buy a bunch at the market, it keeps for weeks and weeks in the crisper drawer.)
If you want to try the tisane ritual but don’t have any herbs to hand, try a few strips of organic lemon peel and a slice or two of fresh ginger in a teapot full of boiling water. Steep 5-10 minutes. Enjoy.
IMPORTANT – There’s a difference between a cup of thyme tea for a sore throat and trying to self-medicate with herbal teas or supplements for serious health conditions. Herbal alternatives for conditions like depression should be taken under consideration, but should always be discussed with a doctor. This is not a joke, in 2017, I put myself in the hospital with a hypertensive crisis brought on with a pot of St. John’s Wort tea that I left to steep too long and strong.
Do you have a night time ritual? A trick to keep your pep up during the winter months? I’d love to hear it.
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