What remains of herbal teas brought back from Romania last summer, foraged by my ‘honorary grandmother’

I began to appreciate herbal teas only due to an experience during my second year in Romania, 1994. They are relatively little drunk in Britain, at least by the general population, compared to Romania and, I know now, Latvia.  The Romanian experience changed my view and what followed changed my life.

I’ve posted before about how I began to teach in Romania (due to mistaking the word ‘marfă’ for ‘mafia’). I’ve not posted before about two life-changing experiences. The first was an introduction to herbal teas; the second, in the same place, was when I say I was ‘born again’, half Romanian.

Introduction to herbal teas

The ‘county’ inspector for English, who persuaded me to stay in Romania to teach English in a top high school when my planned six month stay finished, invited me to accompany her on a visit to a village school, in a village called Sadova, not far from the town of Câmpulung Moldovenesc. I was feeling really ill with a dreadful cough, sore throat and high temperature which I had not been able to shake off as I usually could. I almost called the visit off.

At some point we visited the house of a/the young English teacher. I  was clearly suffering and struggling to eat something (obligatory when visiting any Romanian home). She asked to be excused, went out the back and climbed a little way up the steep grassy slope to the forest, seeming to be picking flowers. She returned with a handful of leaves and flowers. She boiled some water, poured it on the plants, added some honey and after a few minutes gave me a mug full of the brew to drink. A strange taste for me then but it seemed discourteous not to drink it.

An hour or so later I felt completely well!

I’ve no idea what those plants were – at the time my Romanian was sparse – but now I’d call the brew ‘ceai de multe plante’, ‘tea of many plants’.

Born again in Bucovina

View of Sadova and surroundings

Sadova

The second experience I find impossible to describe adequately. I was back in Sadova but alone. I cannot remember how I got there but I climbed up the steep slopes through the forest and came across a grassy clearing, sun filtering through the tall fir trees, the air full of the scent of them, so sat to catch my breath. An extraordinary peace came over me and the light seemed to change to what I can only describe as magical. The cynical might say I hyperoxygenated from the climb. I’m sure that is not the explanation. I’ve no idea for how long I sat but when I left I felt a different person and I still have that feeling every time I cross the border into Romania, more so when I enter the Bucovina.

I say I was ‘reborn’ there and have been in love with the Bucovina ever since. Several years later I managed a project there with egg decorators, made many friends, and now visit the region and those friends every year.

Romanian herbal ‘teas’ – collecting romanița

I said above that I was introduced to herbal teas in Sadova. That is not quite true though that was the first time I drank one. In the first couple of months in Romania I collected ‘romanița’ (chamomile) beside the impressive river Prut in a little village called ‘Broascăcești’ (which no one I tell of it believes exists – maybe it’s a local popular name – my translation, ‘village of frogs’). I was taken there by my wonderful host family, at or around Easter 1993, to visit relatives. A lady, perhaps I met her/danced with her at a wedding, persuaded me to collect romanița with her the following day. My memories are fragmented but I do remember the village was flooded when we arrived and we had to abandon the car (ubiquitous Dacia, one of only two makes of cars seen 25 years ago, Romanian Renault 11) and take to a cart pulled by a bullock.

Now we bring back to UK ‘teas’ gathered by my ‘honorary grandmother’ each year (those remaining from last year are pictured). More recently I’ve learned about many more from my good Latvian friend Ilze, from her blog ‘a day in the life of a latvian mom’, along with fungi (‘mushrooms’) of various kinds, vegetarian recipes, about her fascinating country (of which I knew little) and much more.

Romanian foraged ‘herbal teas’ I know (I may not always spell correctly):

Those brought back to the UK
Păducel – Hawthorn
Ceai de tei – Flowers of the Linden tree
Mentă – Mint
Salcâm – Acacia (also my favourite honey)
Soc – Elder flower
Gălbanele – Marigold
Cimbru de câmp – Wild thyme
Coada soricelului (mouse tail) – Yarrow
Sunătoare – St. John’s-wort
Trandafir – Rose

Others I know
Romaniță (mușețel) – Chamomile
Coada calului (horse tail) – Field horse tail
Patlagină – Ribwort plantain
Bradul – The fir tree
Leurda – Wild garlic (we collect in UK for salad)
Osul iepurelui (rabbit’s bone) – Restharrow
Țelina – Celeriac
Urzica – Nettle (we collect in UK, young, and use like spinach)
Vișinul – Sour cherry (my favourite fruit, especially in Romania)
Zmeurul – Raspberry (another favourite fruit)

There are good reasons to bring back herbs and fruit even if available in the UK: both soil and air are cleaner in the Bucovina, truly ‘organic‘ (a stupid term, all food is ‘organic’ – recently adopted ‘bio‘ is as bad – but you’ll know what I mean).

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Mushrooms cut ready for cooking

This post was going to be just about my mushroom dish, inspired by my recently found Latvian blogging friend, Ilze. However, I must comment on David Mellor’s Classic FM two hour programme on Sunday, about Maria Callas. I said in my post of about three weeks ago following his programme about Pavarotti, that his is for me the best programme by far on Classic FM. I’ve been listening to him when I could for a few years but I reckon his programme last evening was probably his best ever.

I’ve long held that Maria Callas was the greatest diva even though her voice wasn’t always the best, particularly in her later years. Mellor, as ever with carefully chosen recordings, illustrated just why he thinks so too (if you have the Classic FM app for iPhone or iPad, or the Android version, you can listen to the programme, in fact any programme, again for up to 7 days after broadcast).

Back to mushrooms

I’ve had one or two discussions with Ilze, on her blog, about the mushrooms she forages from the close by forest, the latest about a ‘new’ one for her – Delicious Milk Cap. I don’t have much possibility to forage for fungi here and even if I had it would be a steep learning curve to know which are safe; probably I’d never be confident enough.

Reading her latest recipe, with the ‘Delicious …’ she had found, determined me to try to give more taste to my usual dish of cultivated mushrooms in sour cream, a dish I make fairly often for our ‘no meat’ days. So here’s my recipe (tap the pictures to see captions).

Ingredients

Chestnut mushrooms – 300g

Sour cream – 300g

Oil (sunflower, rape or olive – on this occasion I used the latter) – 2 tbspn

Butter -10g (about)

Medium red onion – 1/2  

Cloves of garlic – A few

Ground ginger – 1/2 tspn

Leaves of Tarragon – a few

Salt and pepper – to taste.

Method

Wipe the mushrooms and cut in half. Heat the oil and butter in a frying pan until the butter foam has almost subsided (this indicates it is sufficiently hot to sauté the mushrooms rather than boil them in their own juice – the butter also gives a bit of taste). Sauté the mushrooms till just beginning to brown on each side. Remove from the pan.

Turn down the heat. Add the roughly chopped onion to the pan. Meanwhile crush the garlic cloves by putting a broad bladed knife on them and bash with a fist. When the onions are transparent raise the heat a bit and add the garlic. Stir a few times until the garlic has begun to brown.

Return the mushrooms to the pan, add the chopped tarragon and sprinkle on the ginger.  Turn over a few times until the mushrooms are hot again, add the sour cream and heat, stirring, until it’s just beginning to bubble. Taste and add salt and pepper to taste.

The result

We ate it just with my home baked wholemeal bread – very tasty – but rice would go well. A good chilled Chardonnay went well too (I know there’s a lot of rubbish with that name so it’s fallen out of favour but a good French one is, well, very good!). A side salad works too.

When I make it again I will probably substitute finely grated ginger root for the ground variety, and maybe a dash of cayenne to get closer to the peppery taste the wild mushrooms (and their more ‘dangerous’ cousins Woolly Milk Cap) are prized by Latvians for. You’ll find Ilzie’s recipe for the Delicious Milk Cap on her blog, and how she deals with the ‘poisonous’ Woolly on her blog too.