Moroccan Mint Tea

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be heading off to Morocco again to lead another of my culinary tours. One of the highlights of the time spend travelling around the Kingdom of Morocco is the drinking of tea infused with different kinds of mint and other aromatic herbs – a gesture of hospitality and a way to engage with the people we meet along the way.
Mint is the most common herb infused in Moroccan tea but it is often accompanied with seasonal additions, fresh Seville orange blossoms in the spring and Wormwood in the winter.  The desert people like to add marjoram whereas I have tasted tea brewed with thyme and sage in the Atlas Mountains.  Marrakech is known for its “atay m’khalet” or mixed herb tea containing a selection of herbs including two kinds of mint, lemon scented verbena, rose geranium, sage, wormwood and marjoram and very delicious it is!  The Moroccans use loaf sugar which I have described in a previous post entitled “Moroccan Sugar Cones”.

Aromatic herbs for Infusion in tea
Common Mint           Mentha viridis                       na’ana
Spearmint                  Mentha spicata                           ”
Peppermint                Mentha piperata                  menta
Pennyroyal                Mentha pulegium                 fliou
Lemon Verbena        Lippia citriodora                   louisa
Marjoram                    Origanum marjorana          merddedouch
Rose Genranium      Pelargonium roseum           laatarcha
Sage                            Salvia officinalis                   salmiya
Wormwood                 Artemisia absinthium           shiba

The tea is prepared very carefully and a tea service is used which comprises a tray, teapot, containers for tea, mint and sugar and decorative glasses.

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MOROCCAN MINT TEA

1 heaped teaspoon Gunpowder Green tea (loose leaves)
lump sugar
1 bunch mint, well washed

Bring the kettle to the boil.
Scald the teapot and put the tea leaves into the pot.
Pour in 1/2 glass of boiling water, swirl the pot and immediately pour it out into the glass. This is the “soul” of the tea.
Pour in another glass of boiling water, swirl it around and then pour it out into another glass.  This will be dark and cloudy and should be discarded.
Put a handful of mint into the pot, add the “soul” of the tea and fill the pot with more boiling water.
Add sugar to taste and allow to draw for about 2 minutes (over a low flame for the best result).

Pour the some of the brewed tea into a glass and then pour it back into the pot.
Repeat this process  to make sure the sugar is fully dissolved and then pour out a small glass of tea and taste it.  Add more sugar if required.
Pour the tea into the glasses to only 2/3 full. If poured from on high, the tea will be more aerated and will be topped with a layer of fine bubbles known as r’za (turban in Moroccan Arabic).
This will allow the aroma to develop.

According to tradition, each guest should be offered multiple glasses of tea.

Saffron

At this time of the year, I am usually in Morocco. I love Autumn in the Maghreb. The date harvest is in full swing as is the olive harvest and the pressing of the new season’s oil. But the absolute highlight for me, is the 2 week saffron picking period. We get up at dawn to drive for the hour or so from Marrakech to the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains. The young girls of the area arrive at about 7am, warmly dressed against the biting cold, to pick the saffron crocus flowers before the sun rises and the flowers open. The girls are all in their teens and supple enough to bend from the waist, plucking the crop and filling their baskets. The bright purple flowers contain just three red stigmas each – the part of the flower that, once sorted and dried, will constitute the most expensive spice in the world!

It takes 140 flowers to yield 1 gram of saffron.

As the flowers are picked, they are transferred to the sorting room where older, more experienced ladies  (no longer able to bend from the waist as easily as their daughters and granddaughters) remove the stigmas from the flowers and send them to the drying room where they will give up their moisture and develop the exquisite flavour and colour that make them such a prized commodity in the culinary world.

True saffron (zaafran horr)  is used in many Moroccan dishes, and is often combined with ground ginger and black pepper, and sometimes a little  cassia bark, in the most lavish of tajines and celebration couscous  preparations.  Those who cannot afford it resort to zaafran roumi (yellow  food colouring powder) to emulate the appearance if not the flavour of these extravagant dishes.

In the saffron growing area of Taliouine in the High Atlas Mountains, I have been lucky enough to have been served saffron tea, brewed with a scant spoonful of green tea leaves, a pinch of saffron and sweetened with pieces of cone sugar!

Moroccan Sugar Cones

In Morocco,  sugar is traditionally sold in 2kg cones.  I often see cart loads of blue and white wrapped cones being distributed from a depot in the Mellah area of Marrakech.  In rural markets, people cannot always afford the whole cone and so pieces are broken off and sold by weight.  In the stunning Nejjarine woodworking museum in Fes, one can see antique wooden sugar moulds and beautifully decorated wooden  hammers used for breaking the sugar into pieces.
On a recent visit to a Berber home in the High Atlas mountains just outside Marrakech, I asked our hostess what she used to break down her sugar cones.  She produced a section of flat iron and told me she had been using it for over 20 years. It certainly works!
As an essential ingredient in Morocco’s famous mint tea, sugar is often presented in a decorative silver box forming part of the classic tea service – brazier, teapot, tray, container for green tea, container for sugar, container for mint and tea glasses… more about that in a coming post!

Orange Blossoms, Mint Tea and “White Coffee”

Spring has suddenly begun making itself felt strongly in Melbourne.  Our famous elms are sporting the pale green seed pods that are so pretty on the trees and such a nuisance once they start to fly about, sticking to car duco and clogging up gutters. Wisteria is bursting into bloom and ephemeral cherry, apple and prunus blossoms scent the air, so poignantly beautiful for their all-too-brief season.
Early spring in Morocco has baskets full of Bitter Orange blossoms in the markets and copper stills for hire prompting industrious women, particularly in Fes, to prepare their annual supply of orange blossom water. As the Bitter or Seville Orange (Citrus aurantium subsp. amara) is found in most Moroccan gardens and is a common street tree, planted  for its hardiness, evergreen beauty and heady perfume, there is a ready supply of blossoms to pick during the season.

Moroccan women will often add a few orange blossoms to the pot when making mint tea. Out of season, a few drops of orange blossom water can be substituted.

For those who eschew caffeine late in the afternoon and evening, a scant teaspoon of orange blossom water  in a glass of hot water makes for a delicious and digestive after-dinner drink and is known in Lebanon as “qahwa baida” or “white coffee” –  plain or sweetened to taste with a little sugar, it will ensure a restorative night’s sleep as well!

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