It's in the bag

We all know there's nothing like a good hot cuppa to make us feel better, but can it really cure acne and help us sleep? In South Africa they seem to think so. Natasha Goodfellow gets the kettle on
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Tea drinking may be something of a British obsession, but we're certainly not the only ones. In South Africa, a gentle, full-flavoured brew called rooibos is pretty much regarded as a national drink. It's a health fanatic's dream and the only fully fermented, caffeine-free tea in the world.

Tea drinking may be something of a British obsession, but we're certainly not the only ones. In South Africa, a gentle, full-flavoured brew called rooibos is pretty much regarded as a national drink. It's a health fanatic's dream and the only fully fermented, caffeine-free tea in the world.

South Africans have been using it for centuries. The Hottentots favoured it for its relaxing properties and used it to cure babies of colic and calm excitable horses. It was brought to the UK in 1976 and now consistently falls into health-food shops' best-seller lists. It's also big in America, Germany and Japan. In Malaysia, just outside Kuala Lumpur, there's even a shrine devoted to the stuff, in the shape of a Doctor Nortier's Rooibos Museum.

And you can see why. Rooibos (pronounced roy-bosh) is popular not just for its lack of caffeine. Evidence suggests that it can promote healthy skin, ease irritations such as eczema and acne and even alleviate mild depression. Studies at universities in Japan and South Africa have found that it also contains unusually high levels of antioxidants - compounds which help the immune system, reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease, as well as countering the ageing process. It's calorie-free and low in tannins which gives it a less bitter taste than other black teas (rooibos is usually drunk without milk), and doesn't inhibit the body's ability to absorb iron in the way other varieties can. Finally, it even has mild antispasmodic properties which can help women who suffer from pre-menstrual stress.

Rooibos was introduced to the UK by South African farmer Bruce Ginsberg who, after a bumper harvest, saw a good business opportunity offloading it abroad. He formed the company Wistbray and started exporting it. "Because rooibos mimics regular tea," says Ginsberg, "it's perfect for those who want to give up caffeine, without having to give up on the ritual of a nice cuppa. Rooibos is the yoga of tea-drinking. It's smooth, gentle and caffeine-free, ideal for people who are sleep-deprived."

Ginsberg is a firm believer in the need to take time over tea and spent several months training at the Daitokuji Zen monastery in Kyoto where the Japanese tea ceremony was formulated 500 years ago. "Tea drinking is an opportunity to relax and breathe deeply. If you need to pull yourself together and marshal your thoughts, rooibos can be used as part of that process."

The first records of rooibos date back to 1772 when Swedish botanist Carl Peter Thunberg, while collecting plants in the rugged Cedarberg mountains of South Africa's Western Cape, recorded local Khoisan people making a rough infusion from the needle-like leaves of the plant, Aspalathus linearis. But it wasn't until 1903 that Ginsberg's grandfather Benjamin - a Russian émigré and member of a famous tea-making dynasty which supplied the Tsars and Europe's monarchs - made the first commercial brand. He used the rooibos which grew wild in the mountains, picking the leaves by hand and bringing them to rural trading posts. He marketed it as Eleven O'Clock Rooibosch, on account of the fact that this is the time that everybody - from factory and farm workers to the people in polite society - stopped for their mid-morning brew. The market is more crowded now, with at least 20 other brands available, many with additives such as vanilla, spices, honeybush and bergamot extract.

Today the tea is produced in much the same way it was in Benjamin's time, based on the original techniques used by the Khoisan people. The rooibos bushes are cut with sickles, their leaves chopped up and then laid out in small pancakes (piles) on a vast outdoor court. Water is added and the leaves begin to oxidise and turn to the reddish-brown colour, which gives them their name (rooibos is Dutch for "red bush"). Before packing it's screened to remove any stalks and dust, and finally it's steam pasteurised to ensure it is free of bacteria. "It's a rigorous process," says rooibos farmer Frans van der Westerhuizen, "But it's necessary because the tea cured outdoors, it's the most strictly regulated tea in the world." *

Rooibos, from around £1.70, is available from supermarkets and health-food shops. For Wistbray stockists, tel: 01635 278 648

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