Nature’s Panacea: Chamomile Tea

In colds or consumptions, I pledge you my word,
Or in chills, or in fevers, d’ye see,

There’s nothing such speedy relief will afford,

As a dose of good chamomile tea.

Your famed panacea, spiced rhubarb and stuff,
Which daily and hourly we see,

Crack’d up for all cures, in some newspaper puff,

Can’t be puff’d into chamomile tea.

David P. Brown’s 1836 lighthearted ditty about the wonders of chamomile tea expresses an appreciation shared by many. The soothing, apple-scented tea has been used for centuries as an inexpensive cure for stomach ailments, heat sickness and insomnia, lulling frazzled nerves and taxed bodies into a state of gentle calm.

Luckily chamomile grows readily in temperate climes and near populated areas. It even aids the growth of nearby plants, making herbs like mint and basil increase their production of essential oils. Remarkably hardy, chamomile was known as “The Rebel Flower” during the American Revolution, because, as a patriotic hostess explained to a British officer who asked the plant’s name, the “harder it is trodden, the more it spreads.”

Here’s a recipe for chamomile tea from Mrs. Hale’s Receipts for the Million (1857). Serve the tea with honey and milk or a splash of fresh lemon juice.

Chamomile Tea

Take of chamomile flowers one ounce, boiling water, one quart; simmer for ten minutes and strain. […] A small cupful of tea, cold, taken in the morning, fasting, is often serviceable for indigestion.

Bedouin Tea: A Wandering People’s Enduring Comfort

The young woman in Albert Camus’s short story “The Adulterous Woman” finds herself in an Algerian hotel one night, alone with an indifferent and boorish husband.

While he sleeps soundly in bed she quietly leaves the room and walks to a nearby fortress. There she climbs to the fortress’s parapet and gazes out over the vast, seemingly empty desert before her. Suddenly she catches sight of a band of nomads and feels an indescribable sense of longing. “Homeless, cut off from the world,” the young woman observes, “they were a handful wandering over a vast territory.”

Alone upon the parapet, under a sky of glinting stars, she realizes the nomads of the Algerian desert possess a freedom she will never have, that despite being poverty-stricken, they are “free lords of a strange kingdom.”

 

The sadness and longing felt by the woman in Camus’s story isn’t hard to imagine. The tribes of nomads that wandered the deserts of North Africa were indeed lords of a strange and desolate kingdom, where their sovereignty was seldom challenged for 1,300 years.

Otherwise known as Bedouins, they lived austere lives amid sun and sand, wandering from oasis to oasis, trading handicrafts and herding cattle. But despite their difficult lives, they developed a rich oral tradition of poetry and proverbs, as well as a complex culinary history, the ingredients for which they acquired through barter with more sedentary peoples.

The following recipe for spiced tea was, and still is, frequently enjoyed by the Bedouin. It’s a rare oasis in what can otherwise be a desert when it comes to flavorful fare. Experiment with different herbs and spices until you find a recipe that suits your taste.

Bedouin Tea

4 tsp dried thyme, or sage (Bedouins use the desert herbs habuck and marmaraya)
2 cardamon pods
1 cinnamon stick
4 teaspoons loose black tea
Honey, if desired

Heat 4 1/2 cups water with the thyme, cardamon pods, cinnamon stick and black tea. Simmer for five minutes. Turn off heat and steep for five minutes. Strain tea and serve with honey, if desired.