It’s been a nasty winter for bugs and many people in our social and work circles have been felled by sickness. Colin and I usually get off pretty lightly and it’s years since we have both been properly sick with the kind of flu that flattens you for days. Even so, I’ve been battling a recurrent cold for the past few weeks and I’ll be well and truly glad to see the end of it. Meanwhile, warm cups of spicy tea are helping to soothe my fatigue and relieve lingering sinus congestion.
As a young teenager I had a strong interest in the medicinal properties of herbs (it probably should have been make-up and boys, but no, it was herbal medicine). Mum and Dad gave me a book about herbs for my 13th birthday and then all of a sudden I was buying dried lemongrass and red clover from the local natural foods store, planting herbs in pots, and picking mint and lemon balm from the garden for tea. All through my teenage years I devoured books on herbal medicine and nutrition, and seriously thought about training as a naturopath.
It was natural that I would use my knowledge to experiment on myself. When sick, I would dose myself with strong infusions of ginger, cinnamon and cloves, sweetened with honey and lemon juice. Back then I was a bit hard core (valuing health over taste buds) and I downed many a bitter and over-drawn brew. If that wasn’t enough, I frequently followed up these potions by swallowing raw garlic cloves and sweat-inducing quantities of cayenne pepper mixed with honey. I’m a bit more moderate these days but I still turn to garlic (in capsules!), vitamin C tablets, and medicinal infusions when I’m feeling under the weather.
A few months ago I spotted an unusual recipe for barley tea prepared with turmeric and ginger and I tucked it away for just such a time as this. Turmeric has been having a major moment lately, praised for its anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and anti-bacterial properties – it’s become a modern cure-all that is even said to ward off cancer and dementia. Last summer I made a turmeric cordial that was wonderfully rehydrating in the mornings when diluted with iced water. For summer this year, I have my eye on this version, which is diluted with coconut water and lime juice.
The slightly astringent and earthy flavour of turmeric also works brilliantly in a hot tea. In Amy Chaplin’s recipe below, turmeric and ginger root are boiled with pearl barley for several hours before being sweetened with honey and citrus juices. In Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, barley water is used to hydrate and cool the body. The barley adds a silky texture to the tea, and when it gets to the point where you’re thinking about scotch and soda rather than yet another throat lozenge, it sure is nice to have something a little luxurious (and…I’m not saying that I haven’t also self-medicated with scotch!). I’ve added black pepper to the recipe (which is said to increase the bioavailability of curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric) and cinnamon for its mellow warmth. Mixed with a vitamin C hit from the fresh lemon and orange juice, there is nothing better than this drink when you’re feeling under the weather.
1/4 cup pearl barley
8 cups water
2 inch piece fresh turmeric, grated or chopped finely (or 1 teaspoon ground turmeric)
4 inch piece fresh ginger, grated or chopped finely
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
To serve: lemon and/or orange juice and honey (manuka, if possible) to taste
Rinse the barley well and place in a medium pot with the spices and water. Cover with a lid and bring to a boil (watch the pot carefully as the barley tends to create a froth that can boil over). Once the water has boiled, reduce the heat and with the lid slightly ajar, simmer for 4 hours. Remove from heat and cool before straining into a large jar or bottle. Store in the fridge. When ready to serve, reheat 1 cup of liquid per person, adding citrus juices and honey to taste.