Author Alexander McCall Smith is known for extolling the virtues of the ritual of tea-making, and in his very popular best-seller series The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, the main character, Mme Ramotswe, drinks rooibos tea all through the novel. It is a balm, an elixir taken to start the day and clearing the head. “This is a tea for people who really appreciate tea. Ordinary tea is for anyone,” says Mme Ramotswe.
Rooibos (pronounced roy-boss), known around the world as red bush or African bush tea, isn’t related to the Camellia sinensis or tea plant at all. It is actually an herb, and specifically a type of fynbos (have a look at the top 10 rooibos facts). The needle-like leaves of the Aspalathus linearis, after the fermentation process has occured, give the tea its characteristic amber color. Although attempts have been made to cultivate the plant elsewhere, it grows and thrives naturally in only one area in the world – the Cederberg region in the Western Cape, South Africa.
In the small towns of Nieuwoudtville, Clanwilliam, Citrusdal and Piketberg, rooibos tea is grown on plantations and provides jobs to around 5000 people in the area. Currently it generates an annual turnover of €35 million, and has been commercially processed since the 1930’s. The Cederberg region is known for its ochre craggy faced mountains, succulents, shrubs and expanse of wildflowers. It is a nature-lover’s paradise and very popular in early spring.
The original inhabitants of the Cederberg area, the Khoi and San people, or bushmen discovered the bush tea more than 300 years ago. They hammered the leaves, allowed them to ferment in heaps and dried it in the sun, before steeping in hot water on the fire, Technically, the commercial production process today isn’t much different.
When the Dutch arrived in the Cape in the 1600s, they observed the habits of the Khoi and San and started drinking rooibos, not to replace black tea, but as an inexpensive alternative at the time. It was only in 1904, when the Russian tea merchant Benjamin Ginsberg started trading it with the locals and exporting it as a ‘mountain tea’, that the popularity of rooibos started to spread.
There was interest, and still is, in the medicinal properties of rooibos (widely known today) from the early twentieth century. The tea has been proven to contain very high levels of anti-oxidants and as a result it’s used in beauty preparations by both small boutique companies such as Annique, and larger European and Japanese based beauty houses. Green rooibos, in fanatical demand for its higher anti-oxidant properties, is a product of the very same plant. The only difference between red and green rooibos is that the fermentation process that occurs naturally, is skipped. Fermentation would give the tea the characteristic reddish color as oxidation occurs. The green leaves are dried and processed, and the green rooibos tea is prepared in the same way.
A low tannin, caffeine-free tea, rooibos has anti-spasmodic properties and is widely fed to babies in South Africa. In summer, rooibos makes a refreshing and widely available ice tea, with restaurants and coffee shops each having their own special recipes. At Netmar Rooibos Teahouse in Clanwilliam, punted as the only rooibos tea house in the world, sisters Sanet and Marjietie sell over 100 flavors of rooibos tea, and perform a rooibos tea tasting ceremony for guests. In winter the chai spiced rooibos (cardamom, cloves and cinnamon) and winter berry flavors are very popular.
In addition to drinking rooibos as a tea, and using it in beauty applications, South African cooks use it widely in their dishes. It’s often used in ice creams, cakes, fruit desserts made with warming spices and to smoke meat and fish.