Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Les Tisanes (Herbal Infusions)

It would be difficult for a French novel or film to avoid a coffee scene. All the clichéd symbolism of café-sitting and espresso-sipping aside, it’s simply a staple element of daily life. By contrast, tisane may have its only literary outing in Proust’s endlessly-cited, never-read tome, À la Recherche du Temps Perdus. But though relatively unsung and unexamined, tisane is the third element in the French triptych of beverages, the soothing counterpoint to regular doses of wine and caffeine.

The umbrella term for herbal “teas” or infusions, tisanes span the culinary and medicinal worlds. They are meant to taste nice, and most of them do, but a great many also claim the ability to aid everything from sleep to digestion to weight loss. Their soothing qualities make them popular après-diner or avant-coucher; while available in cafes and restaurants, they seem to be something that’s consumed mostly at home.

French supermarkets boast enormous shelves of tisanes, and herboristes (shops devoted to natural remedies, oils and the like) will compose unique blends. Luxury tea shops like Le Palais des Thés and Mariage Freres don’t usually stock tisanes; the only caffeine-free varieties available there tend to be made from Southern African roiboos.

Amongst the hundreds of choices available, verveine (lemon verbena) and tilleul (lime blossom or linden flower) are both classics and personal favourites. (The latter makes its star turn alongside Proust’s madeline.) Verveine, though not wholly dissimilar to chamomile, has a deeper fragrance and citrus finish, while tilleul is floral and woody on the nose and a bit sharper on the tongue. Buying teabags—even Lipton makes them for the French market—is the easiest way to prepare them, and I’m told that a certain famous restaurant serves infusions made from garden-fresh verbena leaves. As for me, I have sacks of whole dried leaves, each one identified with the characteristic loopy handwriting of the Graineterie’s owner, José.

Sometimes it is just the thing to finish the day. Back home last night from a rare and uncharacteristically glamorous evening out, nothing, to my mind, could have been preferable to curling up on the couch with a mug of tisane, the dulcet tones of BBC’s Radio 4 warbling in the background.

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