Teatime: Rooibos 110

Teatime: Rooibos 110

This year, exactly 110 years ago, a Russian immigrant decided that the whole world should drink Rooibos. Boris Gorelik explains.

"I'll turn the Cederberg into the new Ceylon!"

The Western Cape wine routes have a new competitor: the Rooibos Route.

Okay. It's not as if the people are already lining up to taste Rooibos, but just you wait. Time is siding with Rooibos.

Remember, only a few decades ago, people stared at you when you ordered Rooibos tea in a restaurant.

The new route's launch party in Clanwilliam was an unpretentious affair. After delivering a few short speeches and planting a few Rooibos seedlings, the ceremony was over.

The hosts, Sanet Stander and Marietjie Smit, were the initiators of the route. Some years ago, actually quite accidentally, their little craft shop in Clanwilliam grew into the world's only tea room dedicated to Rooibos.

Today, they stock hundreds of different kinds of Rooibos tea.

"Tourists from all over the world come here and they want to see how Rooibos is harvested and processed," said Smit.

On the Rooibos Route, tourists can now visit Rooibos farms, learn more about the history of the tea, enjoy Rooibos treatments at beauty salons and eat Rooibos-inspired dishes at restaurants in the Cederberg area.

The Rooibos industry is one of the youngest tea industries in the world. People have been drinking green tea for over 3 000 years, while the South Americans have been producing and drinking their yerba mate for at least the last 350 years. In contrast, the marketing and production of Rooibos only started in earnest 110 years ago.

This is all due to a young Jew, Benjamin Ginsberg, who arrived in Clanwilliam shortly after the Anglo-Boer War, joining his father and the rest of the family who already owned a little shop in the village at the foot of the Cederberg mountains.

According to the family legend, the young Ginsberg, before coming out to South Africa, boarded with the Popoffs, a well-known Russian family of tea merchants.

However, there is no doubt that Ginsberg was the first to spot the potential of Rooibos – a drink already enjoyed by the people of the Cederberg area for hundreds of years.

"I'll turn the Cederberg into the new Ceylon!" he apparently promised.

Part of Ginsberg's marketing plan was to introduce Rooibos to city dwellers. He did this by handing out flyers and free envelopes with tea in Adderley Street in Cape Town. He started to use Chinese and Indian drying techniques to improve the taste of Rooibos and to make it look more like Oriental tea.

He also initiated the oldest existing Rooibos brand - the still well-known Eleven O' Clock.

In the early 1930s, Ginsberg solicited the help of a good friend, Dr Pieter le Fras Nortier, and promoted the commercial production of Rooibos tea.

At the time, Rooibos was mainly harvested wild.

Nortier, who received one of the first Rhodes scholarships in the country, was a doctor and not a trained botanist. However, he kept on experimenting until he perfected the production of Rooibos.

His granddaughter Haffie Strauss says the people from the district knew her grandfather as "old doctor". "When patients could not afford to pay for his services, he simply accepted it," she explained. "This infuriated my grandmother. But he was not interested in money."

Instead of claiming the benefits from the development of his Rooibos cultivation method for himself, Nortier shared this with all the farmers in the district.

It was during the Second World War, when Ceylon tea became scarce, that the Rooibos industry really began to flourish.

Some of the farmers tried to exploit the situation by mixing Rooibos with foreign ingredients. This fraudulent practice seriously damaged the reputation of the industry to such an extent that the entire Rooibos market collapsed after the war.

After the war, the Rooibos farmers, eager to set things right, requested the government to establish a Rooibos Tea Control Board to regulate the production and distribution of the tea. Yet, Rooibos remained a surrogate for "English" tea.

Author Lawrence Green referred to Rooibos as "essentially a poor man's drink, at half the price of proper tea".

This forced the Department of Trade and Industry to do something. Consequently, Rooibos was registered in South Africa under the Trade Marks Act. This gave the European authorities sufficient reason to reject the French application.

Still, there is work to be done. The Rooibos industry is trying to get the geographical indicator status of Rooibos acknowledged all over the world.

This status is given to products when their reputation and characteristics are linked to their geographical origin. Well-known examples include tequila, champagne and Darjeeling tea.

In 2014, South Africa obtained geographical indicator status from the European Union. Rooibos still needs to obtain the same protection from the rest of the world. This will, for instance, protect the South African industry should the Australians manage to produce Rooibos in their country.

"If ever the Australians plant tea, they cannot sell the tea under this name. Rooibos can only be produced in the winter rainfall area of South Africa."

The former stepchild of South African drinks is finally being acknowledged as part of this country's heritage. It is just as valuable for South Africa as Parma ham in Italy and Roquefort cheese in France.

It seems as if Ginsberg's dream of a Ceylon in the Cederberg mountains did eventually become a reality.

Boris Gorelik is a freelance journalist with a special interest in stories about South Africans of Russian descent.