herbal infusion

Damn You, Damiana

Damiana (or Turnera diffusa) is a shrub native to parts of Texas and just about every Spanish-speaking country south of that. Many Central and South American countries regarded it for its relaxing effects. However, it was Mexico that recognized it for another – less chaste – use. And no one had told my parents.

My mother and stepdad were on a cruise to Mexico. While in Cabo San Lucas, they came upon a vendor hocking an herbal “tea”. He explained that his herbal product had a list of purported health properties attached to it, including: Treatment for headaches, treatment for diabetes, and a tonic effect on the muscles and nervous system. Also in the fine print was another, more infamous use.

When they got back to the U.S., my mother proudly called me up to tell me what she picked up for me. She knew I had a thing for trying out new teas and tisanes, and – God bless her – her heart was in the right place. However…um…well, here’s how the conversation went:

Mom: “We picked up this tea for you in Cabo. It’s a cactus tea!”

Me: “That’s great!…Wait…it’s not ‘damiana’, is it?”

Mom: “That’s it.”

Me: “Mom…that’s an aphrodisiac.”

Mom: [long pause] “Oh…well, you don’t have to drink it for that.”

They stayed with my brother and I on a visit to drop off their wares. My mother let my stepdad do the “honors” of handing me said herb. His exact words were, “Here’s your boner tea. Enjoy.” Just like that.

A few months after that, a friend of mine also made a trip to Cabo. I had related the tale regarding the damiana to him, and – being the way he is – he texted me: “I picked you up some more damiana.”

I didn’t receive this second stash of sex tea until a tea party a few weeks back. I actually had the other bag of damiana with me in the hopes of giving it away. What use did I have for it? I wasn’t dating anyone. The moment I started unloading the bag of teas I had for said party, my friend handed me the damiana he bought for me.

It was from the same damn farmer my mother had purchased hers.

I guess there was no escaping the stuff. It wasn’t like I hadn’t tried damiana before. As I’ve related before, I had taste-tested it plenty of times over the course of years. I had blended it with gingko, lemon verbena, and other anti-inflammatory herbs for a “prostate” tea. (What? I’m a male in my 30s, I worry about this sorta thing.) While I didn’t remember liking it all that much by itself, I didn’t remember hating it either.  This stuff was straight from the source, wild-harvested even. I guess a second go-around was in order.

The appearance was strikingly similar to quite a few other green-leaning herbs. There were leaf bits ranging from green to brown along with stems and twigs. I likened it to tulsi, only (obviously) greener. What really surprised me was the sweet/mint aroma it possessed. The last time I whiffed this stuff, it did not possess that profile. I expected herbaceous, and I got…fruit sweetness with a hint of spearmint. Maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad after all; maybe there was something to this wild-harvesting thing.

I didn’t adhere to any particular brewing instructions for this. Damiana blends past only required about a five-minute steep time in boiling water – roughly a teaspoon of herb per cup. I went a little stronger with a heaping teaspoon in 8oz. of boiled water for five minutes.

The liquor brewed up green-gold, almost jade-like with an aroma that made an eyebrow cock. It smelled like weed. What was it with Spanish-speaking country herbs smelling like weed?! Yerba mate smelled like it, guayusa kinda smelled like it, mate de coca definitely smelled like it. This at least had a nettle-ish lean to differentiate it from the druggie rabble. That’s not to say it was a good scent; it was just very herbal – questionably so.

As for flavor, it opened up with a spinachy front that caused my tongue to curl. Not unpalatable, just alarming. Mamaki and nettle leaf had a similar affect on me. That transitioned to an uphill top note of citrus and something bittersweet. The finish was both grassy and silky at the same time.

What was really worth noting was the immediate side effect upon imbibing. This stuff went straight to my skull like a brusque Assam. A couple of sips in and my frontal lobe went, “WTF?! Is that caffeine or something else?! Help, I need an adult!” Or something to that effect. There was no way to test out any…er…aphrodisiac results, but if the “woosh!” to my brain was any indication, it did increase blood flow.

I can’t say this is an herbal I would have on a regular basis. Sure, it’s pleasant enough on its own, but not habit-forming in the slightest. It tastes like something someone would take for its apparent health benefits. Like St. John’s Wort…only randy. It was exactly as I remembered it, but there was something to be said for getting it directly from a farmer. The sweeter profile was testament to that.

If I am ever in a situation where it’s “services” are required, though, it’s good to know that I have plenty on hand for just such an emergency. Ladies, I’m single.

(As if that’s a surprise.)

Photo by Kenneth Lu

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Thursday, September 22nd, 2011 Steep Stories 1 Comment

Going Greek Mountain

The existence of Greek Mountain Tea (Sideritis syriaca) came to my attention on a perusal of the David’s Tea website. The exotic-looking plant had shown up in review samples, but I was too late in acquiring some. I almost made a purchase of it from David’s until I looked at the shipping charge. They were a Canadian company. Needless to say, it was out of my budget.

The back-up option was to hunt down a local provider. I scoured my usual tea spots. None seemed to know what it was. I even hit up Greek people I knew. For some reason, they hadn’t heard of it either.  At a Greek-owned nightclub, I asked the owner.  He wracked his brain for a bit, then said, “Oh yes, veddy good tea. Veddy good!” Then he recommended a Greek deli/mart that might have it.

That deli ended up being Foti’s, a popular lunch spot in NE Portland. Half of the shop was sectioned off for Greek market products. On one of the shelves – next to the sage – was my target.

I took it home and instantly began experimenting. First, I tried it steeped like any normal tea/tisane. This yielded a pale yellow cup with a light citrus taste, but it didn’t leave much of an impression. Then I perused the internet for other recommendations. Apparently, it was so resilient an herb that a good brew had to be decocted (i.e. boiled) for ten minutes in a pot. I should’ve know this, since the review site forum had mentioned as much.

While I did possess a pot in which to do the boiling, I didn’t have much of a desire to.  Main reason? I was afraid of the stove. I know…I know…shut it. However, I did have something in my possession that would work. A cheap, plastic electric tea kettle that continuously boiled water. My sister gave it as a Christmas present the year prior. I was in business.

After a ten-minute boil, the brew had reached the desired amber I’d seen in many a photo. It was also scalding hot due to the repeated boiling of the water. I actually required an ice cube to make it drinkable. But once it was ready…oh dear Lord…

The flavor was a unique mélange of honey, lemon, and mint. There was also something wildernessy about the taste, like one had stepped onto a Mediterranean field and instantly found a hot tub. It had a lot in common with chamomile on the initial taste, then settled into something more akin to lemon verbena; but without the vegetal note.

One recommendation I read noted that the drink was not complete without honey. Not just any honey, though. Only Greek honey would do. This led to a return trip to Foti’s Deli.

I hoped the honey was worth the trouble. The stuff cost me twelve bucks. That was expensive, even for honey. For twelve dollars, the bees used to make it better be endangered. The back of the bottle mentioned that Greek honey differed from other types because of the flowers that bees cultivated. Honey was – after all – just bee puke, so it wasn’t difficult to surmise that bee puke was different from plant-to-plant, country-to-country. But enough about that.

They were right. Greek honey was the missing element for this already-almost perfect beverage. It added a creamy, sweet element to the natural citrus lean of the stubborn herb.

I ended up making several other trips to Foti’s, and – for awhile – it was my go-to sleepy-time drink. I don’t know why I lost interest in it. Part of that may have been due to the one time I ended up with a bad batch. Still, it’s an amazing herbal infusion that apparently also keeps you from getting sick. Or so says someone’s Greek mother.

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Monday, November 8th, 2010 Steep Stories 3 Comments

I work for tea money.

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