Wednesday 19 June 2019

Ireland's alternative Cuppa

Going back to her West Cork roots inspired Freda Wolfe's herbal tea range, she tells our reporter

Nature's bounty: Freda Woolfe with ingredients for her Intelligent Tea range. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Nature's bounty: Freda Woolfe with ingredients for her Intelligent Tea range. Photo: Steve Humphreys
The Intelligent Tea range. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Freda Woolfe foraging ingredients for her Intelligent Tea range. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Aoife Carrigy

The sun is high in a cloudless sky as I retreat down the broad servants-entrance steps to a cool Fitzwilliam Square basement. Inside, the lingering scent of turf from a cool stove reminds me that this is unusually hot weather for our little green island.

I've arranged to meet Freda Wolfe of Intelligent Teas for a chat over a pot of tea from her range of native Irish herbal blends.

Thankfully, this west Cork farmer's daughter is an adept adapter to whatever nature throws at her. The promised hot pot has been transformed into a cool pitcher of iced nettle and elderflower tea, with fresh marigold petals adding a flash of colour and a delicious bitter note.

I've known Freda since the late 1990s, first as a chef in the early days of Eden Restaurant and then as head chef in Brooklodge at Macreddin Village, which she helped the trail-blazing Evan Doyle to open. "We were making nettle and wild garlic pesto, elderflower champagne, sloe poteen," she remembers. "My time there really nurtured my interest in herbs and hedgerows." But after three-and-a-half years of working 14-hour days, seven days a week, Freda took a six-month South American sabbatical and came home determined to carve out a more sustainable work-life balance.

The Intelligent Tea range. Photo: Steve Humphreys
The Intelligent Tea range. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Today, she divides her time between foraging, gathering, drying, blending, hand-packing and selling the native Irish herbs that go into her range of Intelligent Tea blends, as well as harvesting the Clever Honey that she sells as a sister brand and working as culinary manager with Odaios Foods, a leading supplier of gourmet food products to Ireland's top restaurant and hotel kitchens.

For all my years of knowing Freda, I've never heard the full story of how she went from over-worked chef to an entrepreneurial forager of indigenous healing herbs. Before we settle in for a cuppa she takes me out back to show me the beehives that are her city-centre link to the west Cork childhood that shaped her.

Down by the old coach gate onto Lads Lane, three hives are humming gently under the cooling shade of a temporary gazebo. A fourth hive is looking livelier under the high sun. This one belongs to her friend Richard who, like the bees, is a permanent resident here. A novice bee-keeper, Richard caught his bees swarming away from one of Freda's hives and set them up in a new hive, which he is currently inching on a daily basis back towards the cooling gazebo. "Any more than a metre a day upsets their GPS setting," Freda explains.

Freda took up bee-keeping four years ago, doing a beginners' course with the Irish Beekeepers Association. Today, she owns 10 hives in total, including three in the coachyard of this Georgian Dublin pile that she is lucky enough to treat as a second home, plus others in Dalkey, Ashford and the Dublin mountains.

But it was a neighbouring farmer in west Cork, John Roycroft, who inspired her love of bees and of wild herbs and plants. "He had just six cows, so it really was a small holding," Freda remembers, "but he had 15 bee hives. At the age of 12 he gave me a [beekeeping] veil and I became his apprentice, doing the smoking for him. That was when I learned to love bees."

Freda's own home life was also full of daily lessons in the bounty of food the land offers. Nestled between Ballydehob and Schull, with views of Cape Clear, the family smallholding was a busy place with enough jobs to keep herself and her three siblings busy all through the long summers.

Freda Woolfe foraging ingredients for her Intelligent Tea range. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Freda Woolfe foraging ingredients for her Intelligent Tea range. Photo: Steve Humphreys

"It was back in the day when you had as many children as possible - you needed all hands on deck to help run the farm. We had sheep, cows, dry cattle, hens, ducks, pigs - the pigs were the first to go and then the sheep, and now we just have the cattle. It was very hands-on, we would help by bringing in the turf and the hay, picking the vegetables and fruit.

"We grew up picking blackberries and crab apples for jam, or fresh spring nettles for soup. My uncle would shoot some rabbit and we'd roast that up. On Good Friday we'd go collecting mussels and eat ourselves sick on them. There was always loads of fresh pollock off the boats - although crab would be thrown away, no one knew what to do with them!"

By the age of 14, Freda started working in Colla House Hotel in Schull. "I did a bit of everything: waitressing, housekeeping and learning to cook the basics in the kitchen." But having inherited what she calls her mother's "carer's genes", it was the kitchen that she really loved, so having trained at CIT she began to work her way up through professional kitchens in Cork and Kerry, including a lucky break in Evan Doyle's Strawberry Tree restaurant in Killarney in the early 1990s.

"He really was ahead of his time," Freda remembers of the pioneering restaurant, "using wood sorrel and samphire and things that no one else was using, or smoking his own salmon or showcasing local game. That was when I first realised just how much our hedgerows have to offer us in the kitchen."

Freda's career began to take real shape from there, with a stint in Shades of Clifden where there was a focus on native and wild Irish ingredients, followed by a very influential period working with the late Gerry Galvin in Drimcong House. "I think of him like a male version of Myrtle Allen," Freda says, "in terms of his role in the Irish food story. He was using ingredients like salad burnet, with its clean crisp flavours, or fish like pike which was one of his signature dishes. He was sprouting alfalfa and serving it with potted fish. He was so well travelled and brought all those influences home - he made the best tomato salsa I have ever seen."

One of the world's true gentlemen, Gerry also taught Freda the value of keeping calm in the kitchen, while working with Evan taught her the value of keeping food edgy while building sustainable relationships with your suppliers. "They were both inspirational to work with," she says. "They really brought out the best in me."

Freda seems to have a knack for finding herself inspirational employers. When the time came to find an alternative to those 14-hour kitchen shifts, she landed herself a job with Jason O'Brien of Odaios Foods. "He's another of those visionaries," she says, "and in my role as culinary manager I get to be his practical arm, learning about new products and assisting the sales managers. It's a great way of keeping myself in the chef's world without having to do those crazy chef's hours."

The link to the land kept tugging at her sleeve, however. "I realised at a certain point that life was moving on very swiftly. I felt the urge to get back to nature and to my farming roots."

Taking up bee-keeping gave Freda the excuse she needed to get out of the city at the weekends, but, in typical style, she opted for the deep-dive option and embarked on a four-year course to train as a master herbalist with the Irish School of Herbal Medicine in Portlaoise. "That was part of that need to get back to nature and to involving myself in activities in nature."

The training involved 550 hours of clinical practice, during which Freda and her fellow herbalists would diagnose symptoms in patients and identify herbal remedies to support the body's natural healing system. However, Freda never saw herself as working directly with patients but rather as developing a range of products that would allow people tap into the benefits of native Irish herbs in their own home kitchens.

Having qualified as a master herbalist in 2011, Freda began to experiment with making bespoke blends of herbal teas for various friends in response to specific needs and ailments. In 2014, Intelligent Teas was launched at Temple Bar Food Market, with four signature blends - today that has expanded to 24 blends. "I just love the buzz of designing new blends, both in terms of the flavour combinations and the therapeutic qualities."

Under EU regulations, producers are restricted in terms of the health claims that they can make about their food products, but the innate faith that Freda has in the natural 'intelligence' of herbs and plants seems to be shared by her customers. "People are increasingly aware of the healing power of herbs," she says, "and my customers tend to be very well-informed and full of intelligent questions."

And the feedback from customers is that her teas are useful in supporting their body's healing systems, whether in response to self-inflicted damage, as with her Digest and Hangover teas, or to the demands of certain life stages (Baby Blooming with marshmallow, rosehip, nettle, oats, raspberry leaf and elderflower or Up the Duff, with marshmallow, rosehip, nettle, oats, raspberry leaf and elderflower) or seasons (Breath Easy with mullein, plantain, fennel, peppermint and thyme or Sinus Soothe with nettle, marshmallow, thyme, peppermint, elderflower and marigold).

Her Hangover tea combines the freshness of lemon balm and the grassy earthy tones of dandelion and nettle with milk thistle, a herb long used to support the liver. Heather brings a subtle boggy perfume, while soothing meadowsweet adds a honey almond flavour, creating a subtle sweet brew that is just the job for the morning after.

Recently she has begun to develop a range of single estate teas, such as her Just Peppermint tea grown organically by Nick Hill in Cavan, or Just Lemon Balm grown in Kilruddery Estate in Bray, Co Wicklow.

She has also begun experimenting with dandelion coffee made from the dried and roasted root of the weed, which she served as a caffeine-free alternative to regular coffee at last winter's Zero Kilometre Dinner in Brooklodge Hotel alongside a bespoke tea blended from herbs foraged onsite and wrapped inside hand-stitched teabags. With its sweet and nutty flavour, dandelion coffee is surprisingly delicious - if extremely labour intensive, as anyone who has ever tried to dig the root out of their lawn will testify to.

Having launched her products at the weekly market in Temple Bar, Freda has more recently shifted focus to online and retail sales, though she can still be found at certain markets such as the Christmas Flea Market.

But these days she prefers to spend her Saturdays getting out of the city, tending her bees or collecting herbs from her growers in Cavan and Wicklow. "I'm not looking to take over the world, just to find a way of working that allows me to connect to nature and have fun designing new blends of flavours and healing properties." Sounds like someone is living the dream.


How to make the perfect pot of tea

Though making what you consider to be the perfect pot of tea is a matter for individual tastes, there are some general rules that will help you to make a good brew, according to Maria Cassidy. Water temperature is key, as many people “kill the flavour” in green and white teas by making them with boiling water, says Maria. This leaves the tea tasting grassy and astringent, rather than having fruit and floral notes. Here are her guidelines:

● Your tea leaves or bags should be stored away from light, humidity and strong odours.

● Tea should be made with fresh filtered water that’s free of limescale and chlorine. The correct pH level is 6.8.

● Tea needs oxygen to brew correctly, so you should never reboil the kettle.

● After the correct brewing time, you should separate the leaves from the liquid to stop it getting stronger and therefore more astringent.

●  In general, use 1.5g of tea per 100ml of water.

● Black teas need the hottest water, with 98˚C recommended and a drawing time of 3-5 minutes.

● Oolong and Puerh teas also need this temperature, with a brewing time of 3 minutes, and 3-4 minutes respectively.

● Green teas need cooler water — 70˚C is the recommended temperature. Chinese greens should be brewed for 3-4 minutes, while Japanese greens need only 30 seconds to a minute to be ready.

● White tea should be made at a temperature of 80˚C and left to draw for 3-5 minutes. Yellow teas should also be brewed at 80˚C, and for 3-4 minutes.

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