Home brew

There’s no shortage of anecdotal evidence that rooibos tea is good for you. But there’s scientific research to back it up, too, and now everyone wants a cup of the good stuff.

Hundreds of years ago, when the Khoisan were living in the Cederberg, they used the rooibos (“red bush”) plant, Aspalathus linearis, as a remedy for all manner of ailments. It’s taken more than three centuries, but the health benefits are once again driving its popularity around the world. It’s even been used to make the world’s first espresso tea.

A Swedish botanist, Carl Thunberg, was the first to notice the Khoisan making tea from the plant in 1772.

He documented the plant and introduced it to the early Dutch settlers in the Cape.

In 1903, Benjamin Ginsberg, an immigrant from a prominent Russian tea-merchant family, started experimenting with curing techniques, eventually trading with and exporting this exotic new brew.

The family is still involved in the business today, producing, among others, Eleven O’Clock rooibos tea.

Benjamin encouraged farmers to experiment with cultivating rooibos, but it was only in the 1930s that Dr Peter Le Fras Nortier succeeded in cultivating this difficult crop, making it commercially viable.

It’s one of the few wild plants to be successfully cultivated without being modified.

Many people believe the environment in which rooibos grows plays a big role in its uniqueness. It’s a tough, drought-resistant plant found only in the Cederberg and Clanwilliam area, in acidic, sandy soil that contains virtually no nutrients.

It only grows in summer when the moisture content of the air is between 10% and 20% humidity. Once the twigs turn red, the farmers harvest. The result is an all-natural product which contains no colorants, additives or preservatives.

Rooibos is not actually a tea, but a herb. The brew made from the dried leaves is a herbal infusion known as a tisane.

Rooibos branches are usually cut by hand in summer and early autumn, ensuring better kilojoules or caffeine.

According to the South African Rooibos Council, 72% of local households have rooibos in their tea canisters, and it’s the only sector of the local tea market that is growing.

The tea’s appeal reaches far beyond our shores, with exports increasing from less than 2 000 tons in 1999 to just under 6 000 tons last year.

Germany is the biggest market, with other major importers being the Netherlands, the UK, China and the US.

The reason for this lies not only in the alluring aroma and distinctive taste, but in the growing evidence of its health benefits. It first sprung to fame as a home remedy for infants with colic, and for children with eczema or who wouldn’t sleep.

Today it is often used to bathe children with allergic skin reactions at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital in Cape Town.

Since the 1980s, research has proved that this fynbos plant has anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties, and revealed that it contains a complex blend of more than 30 antioxidants.

In 2010, a collaborative study by scientists at four international research facilities found the first clinical evidence that drinking rooibos tea significantly increases the antioxidants in human blood, boosting the body’s natural defences.

The effects of this are wide-ranging, from alleviating inflammation and allergies to reducing cholesterol and lowering blood pressure (ultimately helping to prevent heart attacks and strokes) and protecting against and fighting cancer.

Other recent research has shown that rooibos lowers the production of the “stress hormone” cortisol, and shows great potential in treating diabetes, Alzheimer’s and liver disease.

The results are so staggering that the South African Rooibos Council invested R2 million in independent scientific studies of rooibos this year alone.

Projects in conjuction with the Medical Research Council and various local universities include treating obesity with rooibos and investigating how it can improve sports performance.

The tea the Japanese call “long life tea” also holds great promise for anti-aging.

The pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries have long sought to repair or prevent the effects of aging – and the most accepted theory is that free radicals damage cells, while antioxidants bind with free radicals and prevent them from doing this. Rooibos as a fountain of youth?

It’s not impossible.

Rooibos cooking tips
» Rooibos is a natural meat tenderiser – use it as the basis of a marinade for chicken, beef or lamb.

» Give stews and potjies a tangy taste by replacing water with rooibos tea, or dissolve stock cubes in rooibos tea.

» Rooibos adds extra flavour to sauces.

» Rooibos can be used to substitute milk or water in almost any baking recipe.

» Make a delicious iced tea by mixing rooibos with sugar and lemon and serve chilled, or mix it with your favourite fruit juice.
Rooibos beauty tips

» Rinse your face with lukewarm rooibos instead of water; it’s a great skin freshener.

» Rinse dark hair with strong rooibos to give it shine.

» To soothe tired eyes, chill used rooibos tea bags in the fridge or freezer and place them on your eyes when needed.

» Popping six rooibos tea bags into bath water will help you relax.

» To treat pimples or acne: mix together a cup of strong rooibos tea, 1 tsp apple cider vinegar and
2 tsp flour. When lukewarm, apply the paste to your face.

Leave for 15 minutes before rinsing off with lukewarm rooibos tea, and gently press skin dry.

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