You could probably do the roasting in the oven. But then you'd miss standing over the cast iron, stirring, and the rich waft of roasting leaves. Stirring with a wooden spoon, surrounded by an aroma a bit sharp and citrusy, with a deep woody foundation and notes of Oolong.
Ok, I'm not a food critic or one who describes the "bouquet" of wines. But this dry-roasted tea, easy to make yourself (really easy!) is one of the best native teas of our ecoregion. And one of the most tea-like, as in Camellia sinensis. But distinctive, caffeine-free, really rich tasting.
It's made from the leaves of bayberry (Morella pensylvanica), a shrub especially common along the coast, but that ranges throughout New Jersey and much of the region. Well-known for the aromatic candles made from its waxy fruits, and somewhat known as a culinary herb (bay leaf substitute), it is even less known as a tea plant. Given that many of our finest teas are imported from far off regions (tea, rooibos, and tulsi come to mind), maybe we could change that.
(More on bayberry ecology in a former blog entry, here.)
Here's a straightforward how-to:
1. Harvest leaves (or branches with leaves) from planted or wild specimens. If the latter, only from places where the species is abundant.
2. Dehydrate these. Use whatever drying method works for you. An easy one is to use a laundry drying rack, lay the branches across the slats, and set the whole thing in a shaded room (air circulation a plus).
3. Strip leaves from branches after they are thoroughly dry. Can't wait? If you want to skip steps 1 & 2 and try roasting fresh leaves, that's fine too, just experiment a bit. (The fresh leaves, unroasted, also make a very nice tea.)
4. Place dry leaves in a cast iron skillet, pre-heated to low heat (a setting of "2" on our stove.)
5. Stand over the skillet. Inhale the deep roasting aroma. It's fantastically good.
6. Stir occasionally with a wooden spoon or spatula.
7. Bust up the leaves a bit so they have more contact with the skillet base.
8. Roast for 5 - 15 minutes. Turn the heat down even lower if you like, or experiment with a quick, hot roast. The object is to turn the leaves from green to more like a golden green/brown melange.
9. Pour the leaves into a bowl, and crush them with your hands. For a nice fine grind, crush the leaves through a sieve into the bowl.
10. Boil water for tea.
11. Steep one teaspoon of roasted bayberry leaves per cup of tea, in the water after it has boiled and been poured out (no need to boil the bayberry). Steep for 5 - 7 minutes the first time, then adjust as you like. The tea will turn a nice green, somewhat like green tea.
12. Drink straight or with a bit of honey.
13. If you like it, drop me a line!