Rooibos Tea Maker Skills

The mid-summer sun dips towards the jagged peaks of the Cederberg. Their shadows slide towards a small farmstead nestled low in the valley. Here, on a broad smooth concrete court, a tea maker reflects in a moment’s stillness. The tractors have returned to the shed and buzzing insects are winding down for the day. Even the bees, drawn here to the scent of long heaps of Rooibos are on their last foray before finding their hive and it’s relative cool.

He bends over and grabs a handful of the finely chopped needle leaves. Despite the heat lifting off the slab, the wet mixture feels even a degree or two warmer. He holds it to his ear, and gives it a gentle squeeze. The squish sounds like a wet rag indicating the moisture level is just right.

A rooibos farmer crouching over a patch of freshly fermented rooibos drying in the cederberg sun

Water is only one key ingredient to achieve his art. It’s needed to calm the process against the other added ingredient: Oxygen. Brought to the leaves by the fluffing up of the tractor drawn rotovane, this life giving gas turns the leaves from the natural green to the fiery red. A microscopic reaction happening in the broken cells of the leaf. Burning – the silent death throws and before a Phoenix-like rebirth.

He opens his palm as a few drops slide off his knuckles. Already a rusty colour stains the creases in his workman’s hands. He lifts the small pile to his nose and inhales. Fresh aromas pierce through the background mechanical smells of dust and diesel, engines and oil. The vegetative cut-grass and clipped hedge fragrances are giving way to richer flavours. Hints of freshly cut apples, boiled sweets of his childhood and newly baked goods take him back to his grandmother’s kitchen.

Satisfied, he scatters the leaves to the heap at his feet, wipes the last sticky pieces from his hands and turns his mind to the last of the day’s chores. The shadows will grow, the brilliant stars of the Milky Way will come to softly light the tea through the night and when the crimson dawn begins to etch the peaks against the morning sky, he’ll return to the place and repeat the ritual – stooping to run his hand above the leaves, now a rich auburn in colour and exhaling a humid breath in the coolness of the breaking day.

Hands holding freshly fermented Rooibos

He plunges a hand in and closes it over the hot grit, drier than the night before, and feeling even warmer. Eyes closed, he inhales and is flooded with the smells of homemade jams, caramel and honey – sweet delights hidden in a rust coloured pile of grainy leaf matter. What might be a mulch pile to a passerby, is a small miracle of nature and guidance from a skilled human hand. Suddenly, he’s a small boy again, cup in hand and seated a heavy table while around him stoves and ovens cook up delicacies while he hears stories on generations past.

He stands tall as he shakes the last leaves and turns to see the activity of workday beginning. Workers muster, keys turn in locks and motors splutter to life. The sun’s first rays chase the last of the shade and beckon the tea to be scattered and dried under its warmth.  With the last moisture gone, the tea can be collected and bagged, and wait the next steps on its journey to a cup.

He smiles at the irony of applying a fine skill through the coarse methods – the steel blades that spin, the showering spark of the grinder needed to keep them sharp, the burning sun, and heavy tractor wheels turning. All this, for this wild plant begs it to release the treasure of flavour locked within its leaves. He strides off the court, knowing another round will soon be arriving in bales for him to begin again. And although he is a master of his craft, he’s only as good as his last attempt, and new day in Cederberg always brings a new challenge.

 

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