When I was eighteen, my Parisian aunt arranged for me to share an apartment with her niece Lucile on the Rue Mouffetard, a bustling Paris market street heaped with charm. The idea was for me to improve my French and for Lucile to improve her English, an informal language exchange of sorts.
In addition to words and phrases, I eagerly absorbed aspects of the culinary culture. Among the dietary idiosyncrasies I picked up from Lucile were buttery croissants dunked in bowls of café au lait for breakfast, platefuls of slim-cut French fries dipped in mustard for lunch, and cups of tisane last thing at night to settle the stomach and help us sleep.
Tisanes, also known as herbal teas, are not proper tea in that they are not made from the leaf of the tea plant Camellia sinensis. Instead, a tisane is an herbal drink made from the flowers (rose, hibiscus), leaves (mint, lemon balm), seeds (fennel, cardamom), roots (ginger, Echinacea), fruits (peach, raspberry) or barks (cinnamon, black cherry) of any edible plant, other than the tea bush.
They do not contain caffeine.
Like tea, tisanes are usually dried immediately after harvesting to avoid fermentation, thereby preserved for future use. Some tisanes can be prepared fresh. Tisanes are sold 'loose leaf' or in teabags, either as blends such as cinnamon-orange or as single component beverages like rooibos from the red bush plant.
Tisanes are prepared in two different ways: infused or decocted.
An infusion is made in the same way as regular tea. Fresh cold water is boiled and the tisane is brewed in a vessel for a specific amount of time that varies depending on the herbal tea. Infusion works best with flowers, leaves and seeds, the more delicate plant parts that release their taste and aroma with ease.
The other preparation method is decoction. This involves stovetop simmering and then straining the coarser plant parts, like barks, roots or berries, those that require time and effort to extract the flavors and essential oils.
The lack of caffeine renders tisanes especially desirable, and they are consumed for a variety of purported health and medicinal benefits. For example, many herbal teas are said to aid digestion, like peppermint teas. Others allegedly have more specific wellbeing values, such as St. John's Wort tea, which is claimed to work as an antidepressant.
But the relaxant quality of tisanes is what interests me the most. Trouble unwinding and sleeping at the end of a busy day has become an issue for many of us in our hectic modern lives. The idea of having a light soothing drink at night that sedates in a wholesome way is most appealing.
My personal bedtime favorite is the pale chamomile tea made from the daisy-like flowers of the chamomile plant. This tea is believed to relieve anxiety and promote sleep. At the end of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter writes: "...His mother put him to bed, and made some chamomile tea and she gave a dose of it to Peter." If good enough for mischievous Peter, chamomile tea is good enough for me.
Other teas that are supposed to act as a calmer include catnip tea from the namesake plant, valerian root tea, and hops tea made from the cone-like flowers used to flavor beer. At the supermarket, there are several blends specifically marketed for relaxation.
To me, as always, tea is all about the ritual, the stepping out of the chaos, the measured actions and the quiet enjoyment.
At night, I use a simple white cup and saucer for my tisane, nothing distracting. The cup is small, to hold just the right quantity of liquid to drink without having to visit the bathroom all night. I exhale when the kettle whistles, I feel calm as I steep a chamomile tea bag, and I am ready for bed as I carry the herbal tea upstairs to set on my bedside table.
I recently saw my Parisian aunt in New York. She told me tea is all the rage in Paris now and after many years of drinking coffee as a stimulant, even she has switched.
"Of course, I bought all the paraphernalia--teapots, strainers, cups--and only the very best teas," she adds.
"You should try a decaf tisane at night," I say, smiling.
This story first appeared in my column Tea Talk for Inns magazine.