The French are almost as obsessed with tisane as they are with wine. These natural drinks brewed from plants, roots, leaves, spices and flowers are consumed for their deliciousness, but mostly they are appreciated for their beneficial effects to clear up any maladie or calm down any mood. For every dish there is a wine, for every desire there is a tisane.
Tea, the preferred drink of the British, and tisane are both infusions: beverages made by pouring simmering water onto a substance in order to extract the soluble principles. However, tea, a liquor made from steeping the cured leaves of a shrub grown in the Far East, contains energizing theine and tannins, and tisanes do not. Tisanes in France are not just an alternative to tea and coffee. They are a warm caffeine-free beverage for any time of day, a much-loved ritual at the end of a dinner party, or a comforting drink for a moment of me-time.
There are numerous shops and boutiques in Paris that specialize in tisanes or infusions. L’herboristerie du Palais Royal has been in business for over forty years and sells numerous blends boasting various benefits. With over four hundred varieties of dried herbs, fruits and flowers, if they don’t have what you need among their assortment, they can make specific brews for special health needs. Marriage Freres of Paris, the king of flavored teas, sells tisanes made of rare and wonderful fruit oils and ingredients you won’t find elsewhere. They have shops all over Paris and also sell their teas and tisanes worldwide.
But tisane is not just sold in boutique shops. Homeopathic medicine is very popular in France and these alternative teas are supported by the French national health service as they are considered to be a “cure.” In pharmacies, you can ask for an infusion to sleep more easily, to freshen the skin, calm the nerves or heal a fatty liver. Grocery stores generally have several shelves dedicated to different brands of tisanes, neatly lined up in bright little boxes (the tisane section at Le Grande Epicerie is quite impressive), and even the humblest café will have a sachet or two.
The grand classics of French grandmothers include camomille, a natural tranquilizer; tilleul, from the leaves of the linden tree, a natural muscle relaxer that helps sleeplessness; and verveine, a sharp citric digestive and nerve soother. Among the herbs, mint is known to be calming and refreshing and especially good for digestion. Rosemary is good for the liver, and thyme is an expectorant and antispasmodic.
Modern tisanes, healthy but updated for flavor, range from elegant aniseed and fennel blends to sweet orange, cardamom and cinnamon infusions or unconventional associations based on fruit and vegetables.
How to prepare a good herbal tea?
Most herbal tea should be infused around 5 minutes, but some can take up to 15 to release their full flavor. Water temperatures vary, ranging from 90°C (195 °F) for an infusion with Rooibos, 95 °C (200 ° F) for an infusion with fruit, and 100°C (215°F) for a plant-based infusion. The tisane should be covered while it brews. This not only keeps in the warmth but ensures that the essential, beneficial oils stay in the liquid and do not float away in the steam. The oils and fragrances of tisanes are fairly fragile so best to keep bags or loose leaf blends in an airtight container in a cool place.
Cooking with tisanes
Lemon verbena and chamomile can be used to perfume the batter of baked goods or to infuse glazes and frostings with a delicate herbal flavor. Ice cream or frozen yogurt made from milk steeped with tisanes are suave and sophisticated. Pears poached in rose hip tea or roiboos make a light and healthy dessert with a stunning color.
L’herboristerie du Palais Royal
11 rue des Petits Champs
30 rue Bourg-Tibourg
La Grande Épicerie Rive Gauche
38 rue de Sèvres
Charlotte Puckette is a Grand Diplôme graduate of Paris’s Le Cordon Bleu, co-author of The Ethnic Paris Cookbook, as well as a private chef, caterer, cooking instructor, food consultant, and hostess.