Rooibos is a herbal tea that has been brewed in South Africa for many years, generations in fact. Today it is enjoyed by many across the world. It is known by many names, Red Bush tea, South African red tea or the Dutch name of Rooibosch (red bush).
During the 17th and 18th centuries as Europeans arrived in Southern Africa they brought with them a few luxuries such as black tea. This was an expensive commodity though and purchases could only be made as ships arrived from Europe with fresh supplies. They started noticing that the local Khoisan people in the Western Cape would climb the mountains to cut and bundle a fine needle like plant. They would bring them down the mountain wrapped in sacks and loaded on the back of donkeys. They would then chop up the leaves, bruise them with hammers and then leave them to dry out in the sun. This is what they used to make their tea. The tea was used for a variety of herbal remedies.
Benjamin Ginsberg, a Russian-Jewish settler in the Cape started experimenting with the plant in 1904, trying to perfect Rooibos curing by following the Chinese method of fermenting tea in barrels covered with wet hessian sacks.
In the 1930’s Mr. Ginsberg persuaded Dr. Le Fras Nortier to try cultivating the plant. They enlisted the help of the local Khoisan people to find the elusive seeds of their ‘mountain tea’.
Their first crop was planted in Clanwilliam on Klein Kliphuis farm (Small stone house farm). After some difficulties they successfully cultivated the bush and encouraged other farmers to follow. This lead to a very profitable agricultural industry where the Rooibos seed prices rocketed to an astounding £80 a pound!
The original Klein Kliphuis (Small Stone House) is now a guest farm.
The plant comes from the fynbos legume family (Aspalathus Linearis), and has broom needle like leaves. It only grows in the Cedarberg region of the Cape Floral Kingdom. The Floral Kingdom stretches from the South African town of Clanwilliam in the west to Port Elizabeth in the east. Fynbos is a diverse shrubland that thrives in a coastal, mountainous, Mediterranean climate.
The plant leaves, once harvested, are oxidized not fermented which produces the characteristic reddish color of brewed Rooibos tea. Traditional teas such as black, white, green and oolong teas belong to the Camillia Sinensis Plant family. Rooibos is not included, because it belongs to the Legume family and is therefore considered more of a herbal drink than a tea.
Rooibos has always been the healthy alternative to regular black tea or even to green tea, because of it high level of antioxidants (with antifungal properties), lack of caffeine and low tannin levels.
For generations, South Africans have self prescribed it to help with tension headaches, irritability, insomnia, digestive concerns and treatments for gout. Many young mothers (including me) have added it to milk bottles to soothe babies into sleep and to help with tummy cramps (infantile colic). It is the anti-spasmodic agent in the tea that is so effective.
Rooibos contains two flavonoids, quercetin and luteolin, both are known for their cancer fighting properties. The anti-oxidants are reported to protect cell proteins, cell fats and our DNA.
It is supposed to be an excellent immune booster because of its combination of antioxidants and important minerals such as manganese, fluoride and calcium. This same combination is responsible for promoting stronger bones and teeth.
In the last few decades Rooibos has become popular in treating allergies, asthma and dermatological concerns. There are even skin care lines made from Rooibos. A Japanese study suggested that Rooibos tea is beneficial in treating acne. As a topical herbal treatment its high levels of alpha hydroxy acid, zinc and superoxide dismutase may soothe an acne skin and could promote healing.
Another study in 2011 found that regular intake of Rooibos tea could reduce risk of cardiovascular disease and other degenerative diseases.
How to prepare and serve
It is prepared in the same way as black tea, where boiled water is added to brew the leaves. Some will drink it with a wedge of lemon, yet for others it is enjoyed with milk and sugar (or honey).
Some restaurants and coffee shops in South Africa, Australia and the United States have started to ‘experiment’ with new ways to serve this delicious beverage.
- Red espresso – is made from concentrated Rooibos and served in an espresso style.
- Red lattes and cappuccinos – made espresso style with steamed milk and milk foam
- Ice tea – which is a really delicious variation in warmer weather. Mixed with a citrus fruit juice and ice cubes is incredibly refreshing
- Cape Town fog – the name is a variant from the original London Fog. Boiling water is substituted for hot milk. The Rooibos is brewed in a little water only, and added to the milk with a shot of vanilla syrup.
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Author: Principle writer – Celeste Wilson
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