Doesn't look much does it? This is τσαι βουνου [Chai vounou], or Greek Mountain Tea and it's pretty special stuff. This bowlful is specially special (!?) because it was handpicked by some friends of ours. It has to be picked in high summer, when the flowers are on the plant and it has to be picked about 3,000 feet and more above sea level, because it's from that altitude upwards that the plant usually grows.
I used to think that chai vounou (literally, tea of the mountain. To give it its proper name it would be chai tou vounou, but most people leave out the 'tou' these days) was dried sage and in fact you can make a pretty good tea from sage, but the real chai vounou is a plant called Sideritis. This is how it looks when growing in the wild and flowering (usually July/August)...
|Photo courtesy of http://www.west-crete.com/flowers/sideritis_syriaca.htm|
We keep a few herbal teas in the house, including camomile, peppermint and a few others. We also keep a supply of various green teas and, of course, the ever essential Earl Grey for those moments when you need a digestive biscuit, which are many and frequent. Frankly, some herb teas I just don't like. They may be exceedingly good for me, perhaps they'll prevent me going bald, getting Alzheimer's and all kinds of other stuff, but I'm prepared to take the risk. When it comes to mountain tea though, just shove in the smallest teaspoonful of honey and I absolutely love it, which is just as well because, as the photo above shows (the top one of course), we have quite a bit of the stuff.
A while back the very same friends who gave us this batch had given us a previous supply. We've also bought it from the brill fruit and veg man in Arhangelos, he it is who has the tzaki behind his counter (open hearth with logs burning, making his shop one you want to linger in on the colder winter mornings), see the photo in this post from December 5th. We dropped in to our friends' house last week and, as we were leaving, we happened to mention that we were off to Arhangelos to do some shopping and among the things on our list was a bag of mountain tea. We didn't mention it intentionally to try and cadge another free supply, but that was nevertheless the outcome.
"What do you want to buy it for? we have loads!" Said Ilias, the hubby, at the same time gesturing to Rena his wife to go and get us some that very instant.
When you get it from people who've picked it themselves (or their relatives may have) it comes exactly as when picked, except it's been hung up to dry. So it comes in stalk form, about 30 to 40 cm in length. Rena thrust a carrier bag into our hands, the required double cheek kisses were exchanged and one item was deleted from our shopping list as we drove north to Arhangelos. Thus, when we got home I dug out the stout sewing scissors and set about cutting it down to shorter lengths in order for it to fit into the storage jar which can be seen at the back and to the right in the photograph.
We hadn't been here long back in 2005 when Greek friends started educating us about mountain tea. If you sit in a Greek house and they offer you either a coffee or a tea and you reply that you'd rather like a cup of tea then you in all probability won't be served a nice cup of PG Tips with a dash of milk, you'll more likely have a cup of chai vounou set in front of you. Try not to look too surprised. You certainly won't need milk in it. That doesn't work. I know, I tried it before I knew what I was doing. I'll never forget the bemused looks on the faces of my hosts. Cheeks reddening even now at the thought.
Most Greeks boil it up in a saucepan, chucking the entire plant into the water. We're dead civilised and we use our stainless steel teapot (brought all the way from the UK), still nevertheless chucking everything in, even the odd piece of grass that's tangled up in the dried plants.
The benefits of mountain tea are myriad. Just as a sampler, here are some of the things it's reputed to be good for:
common cold and cough symptoms
the immune system
"Ironwort is known scientifically to be anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-oxidant. Active elements include diterpenoid and flavonoids. Significant research has been done on ironwort (it's English name) confirming its popular use to prevent colds, flu, and allergies. Most of this research has taken place in universities in the Netherlands and in Greece, Turkey, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Albania, where the plant is indigenous."
The above quote is from the Wikipedia page for Sideritis.
There's more besides. If you want to know what's in it and lots of other stuff, have a glance at these sites:
It's also been called Shepherd's Tea, because Greek shepherds would use it when tending their flocks high on the mountainsides during the summer months.
I actually thought at first that the name of the plant "Sideritis" had something to do with the fact that it contains iron, but I was wrong. The Greek word for iron is "si'dero" so you can see where I got the idea from. Apparently, though, there is an iron connection in that it was believed by the ancients that ironwort was good for a soldier who'd sustained an injury from an iron weapon. Loads more info can be found on those two links I place above.
There are lots of versions of the plant too, all of which can be used to make the tea, but they vary quite a lot in appearance.
All this typing has brought a thirst on. I'd better get and finish stuffing our new supply of chai vounou into that jar, well, apart from the handful that's going straight into the teapot...