Our neighbors Stathi and Ela always bring us wonderful aromatic tsai (or chai), the aromatic Mountain Tea, when they visit their southern Albanian village. Called ‘tea’ by many Greeks and other inhabitants around the Balkans, the tisane is made of the herb we call Mountain Tea and it is the warm beverage of choice!
The English/Indian tea we had in our Athenian homes was not common in rural Greece. I remember on our winter weekend excursions, when I was a child, we were lucky to get tsai tou vounou (Mountain Tea) in the morning and not the more assertive, somewhat bitter sage tea, which for us kids wasn’t a favorite.
Since ancient times, Mountain Tea has been the favorite herbal beverage of Greeks; in many Balkan countries the word ‘tea’ still refers to this particular aromatic and beneficial herb and not to the well-known Indian leaves. Its delicately aromatic flavor and smell is immediately recognized by all those who remember it from their childhoods bringing back comforting memories. When a few years ago our neighbors brought us a jar of honey from Albania, Costas was moved when he immediately recognized it as being honey made from Mountain Tea. When he was little, every year around the same time, Urania, an elderly lady dressed in black, would visit their home in Volos, Thessaly, bringing the humble products from her village on Mt Othrys: mountain tea stalks and deliciously sweet mountain tea honey.
Mountain tea is refers to the herb Sideritis, which is found in a variety of subspecies. The precious wild herb, which had started becoming rarer and rarer due to over foraging, is now cultivated; and although its taste is different from wild tea, it is still quite aromatic and comfortingly elegant. Many believe that it has many therapeutic and disease-preventing properties, as ancient Greeks had suggested.
In Greece today many chefs are reinventing tea, using it in various dishes. But the wonderful herb is quickly becoming known all around the world: chef Michael Costa at Zaytinya restaurant in Washington DC makes a enticing mountain tea granita which he serves with fresh fruit as a light spring and summer dessert. In the north of Greece, mountain tea is the main ingredient in a variety of soft drinks under the label Tuvunu which are also available in the US.