Cape Town - Rooibos tea is the twang of a blik kitaar drifting over the veld; the strains of an accordion played by a West Coast musician who cites his influence as Worsie Visser en sy Boesmanlandorkes. Rooibos is the langarm in a Porterville farm shed, hay strewn on the floor amid much swinging of limbs and downing of witblits. It’s the wedge of bread ladelled with peach jam piled on the plate alongside the kreef tail.
It’s the heart of the West Coast, yet few drinkers of the brew in far-away lands have any idea of the culture it came from. (There can’t be many cultures in which jam and bread are eaten alongside seafood.)
You find rooibos, today, alongside the Ceylon, Earl Grey and green teas in supermarkets from London and Manchester to Paris, Rome, Sydney, Singapore, Buenos Aires, New York and San Francisco. You find it served in tearooms and cafés throughout the world. Some call it redbush, others try to get their tongues around the Afrikaans name. Either way, if they check the small print, they’ll see that it comes from our West Coast, home of the gull and albatross, the wild Atlantic wind and the sweet, sticky wine.
Rooibos is a big Cape success story. There are legions who grew up drinking Ceylon tea and one day tried a cup of rooibos. But it was an acquired taste. Generally, you wouldn’t like it much at first sip. If you vaguely took to it, you might take a cup of rooibos now and then, when you felt like a change. For some of us, the appreciation grew, and rooibos has long been my tea of choice, with an occasional cup of Earl Grey when I feel like a change.
This blushing bride of a tea is naturally free of caffeine. It’s packed with minerals – manganese, iron, zinc, sodium, potassium and calcium – and has trace elements including manganese and copper, which perhaps gives it its golden blush.
Rooibos has come into the kitchen in a big way. There are rooibos breads, cakes, scones and puddings. People drink rooibos Martinis, rooibos iced tea, rooibos glühwein and rooibos Mojitos. There are rooibos koeksusters, biscotti, muffins and tarts, rooibos cheesecake and mousse cake, carrot cake and chocolate cake.
You can start your meal with rooibos beef carpaccio, rooibos chicken liver parfait or rooibos-scented gravadlax, and end it with a rooibos brûlée, panna cotta or “tea-ramisu”. For a main course along the way, you might have had West Coast mussels with rooibos-Pernod cream or rooibos-rubbed linefish with “rata-tea-ouille”. (Thanks for that, chef Philippe Wagenführer. The “tea-ramisu” can be blamed on fellow chef/punnist Morné Botha.) These and other recipes come from Rooibos Limited’s cookbook, A Touch of Rooibos, which has lain on my shelf for a few years but which I have been poring over lately in search of tea-inspired dishes.
Various chefs contributed, including Wagenführer (Roots at Forum-Homini), Botha (Giggling Gourmet), Ruben Riffel, the esteemed Garth Stroebel, Jaco Slabber (Olifantshuis), and Luke Dale-Roberts.
Botha is the chef behind the dish I chose to make this week, a rooibos torte. It came out looking identical to the picture in the book, which suggests it’s an accurate recipe. The family pronounced it a great success, if a tad on the time-consuming side to make, and while I enjoyed it, I felt it would have been improved by a thicker, more substantial filling – more like an American fudge sauce, but flavoured with rooibos, of course.
The book suggests three strengths of rooibos for use in recipes: very strong (12 teabags in 500ml boiling water, infused for 15 minutes), strong (6 teabags in the same solution), or medium (3 teabags). It advises on how to smoke meat or fish with rooibos tea leaves on the stove top, and proposes that we try replacing the liquid in stews and casseroles with a rooibos brew, adding rooibos to sauces and soups, and dissolving stock cubes in it.
But back to that rooibos torte. You need to make eight round biscuits, each 22cms in diameter. While time-consuming, this is not difficult. If you have a big enough flat oven pan, try to cook two at a time, otherwise it will have to be one, with the extra times that takes.
560g cake flour
10ml baking powder
230g butter at room temperature
3 large eggs, beaten
4 rooibos teabags
750ml boiling water
1 x 385g tin condensed milk
50g (100ml) custard powder dissolved in 50ml full cream milk (plus a little more milk if necessary)
15ml (1 Tbs) vanilla essence
Whipped cream to serve (optional)
Preheat oven to 180°C and line an oven tray with lightly greased baking paper. Sift flour, salt and baking powder into a large bowl. Add sugar. Cut butter into small pieces, add, and rub in with your fingers until the mixture resembles coarse breakcrumbs. Add the beaten eggs and mix with your (clean) hands until it forms a dough. Refrigerate this for five minutes.
Divide the dough into eight equal portions and return to the fridge.
Place a sheet of clingfilm on a working surface, take one piece of the dough, round it into a ball and place it in the centre of the clingfilm. Place clingfilm on top, and roll out the dough until it forms a large round disc 3mm thick. Trim it into a roughly 22cm round, using a plate or pot lid.
Place a completed disc on a piece of clingfilm, cover with clingfilm, and roll out the other seven pieces in turn, a layer of clingfilm between each and a final layer on top. Refrigerate for 10 minutes.
Remove the discs one at a time, peeling away a layer of clingfilm, and turn out on to the greased baking paper. Bake for 12 minutes in the centre of the oven until the edges are golden. Carefully turn out on to a wire rack, peeling away the baking paper. Repeat with the remaining seven rounds.
For the filling, put the teabags in 750ml boiling water and boil until reduced by a third, so that you have about 500ml left. Discard teabags. stir in the condensed milk. Mix together the custard powder and milk, and pour this into the tea in a slow stream, stirring while the sauce thickens. Cool, then stir in the vanilla essence.
To assemble, spread some of the filling to the edges of one round, top with the next, and so on until seven biscuits are used. Pile all the remaining filling on top, and use the eighth biscuit to crumble on top. Eat it at a tea time – with a pot of West Coast brew, bru.