"Mountain tea is not a product, mountain tea is a story!" answers Elisabeth Burtscher when asked what this special tea from the Great Walser Valley is all about. The story tells of an idea that son Hanno approached her with over twenty years ago. About women in idyllic mountain villages who collect, dry and blend herbs. Of wisdom and traditional knowledge that is passed on from one generation to the next with this initiative and a book.
Why is mountain tea not actually a product? Elisabeth says: "The herbs and plants that grow in our meadows in the mountains cannot be produced. That is why our tea blends are not a product. The former headmistress from Fontanella initiated a unique project in 2001 together with her son and tea maker friend Ilga Bickel, which is of great importance for the region, its natural diversity and the people associated with it.
Although the mountain tea is sold in the biosphärenpark.haus and other shops in the Great Walser Valley, it is not a sales project. It is intended to raise awareness, set an example of sustainability on a small scale and strengthen respect for nature and its finite resources. "Everyone who stays with us and goes on holiday can look around and see how intact nature still is here. How colourful, how different in smell and taste. How valuable and precious everything that sprouts from the ground here is," emphasises the 77-year-old.
The idea for mountain tea was born in a completely different place. Hanno Burtscher, a successful clay building architect, stopped by a Viennese coffee house during his student days. It gave
The nature-loving student from Fontanella was a little pricked in the heart when he read "Greek mountain herbal tea" on the menu. He asked and said: "We also have mountains and herbs. Why
don't you have any from my home country in your range?"
It was the first year of the founding of the UNESCO biosphere park Großes Walsertal, and of course there was tea. Many women collected leaves and blossoms for their own families, but elsewhere no one knew that this tea was something special. Nor was there anything common yet.
Hanno then asked Elisabeth if she could imagine delivering 30 kilograms of mountain tea to Vienna. "I had to laugh, that's about 60 huge paper bags stuffed full of dry leaves. The first misunderstanding," smiles the initiator. Nevertheless, the seed was sown and Elisabeth contacted her friend Ilga, a tea blender from Blons, to send a good blend of mountain tea from the Ländle region to Vienna. Even as children, the two were sent out by their mothers to collect herbs. When they were up in the mountains, they picked silver mantle and thyme. Not just for tea, but for cooking, like dandelion leaves for potato salad.
"It wasn't about the healing power, but about the pleasure," Elisabeth emphasises. This idea is also part of the story. "When you live in a narrow valley, you (always) have the feeling that everything is better outside. So we said that doesn't have to be the case and we can prove it with mountain tea," explains Elisabeth.
The tea delivery to Vienna was so well received that two kilograms of mountain tea were sent to the capital in the first summer. The project initiators then invited several herbalists to tea talks in almost every village. "We decided that when we make mountain tea, we don't just want to collect the leaves and flowers, but also the knowledge and wisdom of the women," emphasises the Walser. A strong network was created and, after some initial uncertainty, the women shared their experiences with each other. "I told them I was quite sure that at least some of you knew something. As a result, everyone knew something," says Elisabeth.
Herbs should never be gathered in anger, says the wisdom of the herb women. "But since we are a sober club and work without atmospheric light and incense, we said: It probably won't be that tricky, otherwise we wouldn't be able to collect herbs all summer. So when you're annoyed, you don't start picking right away, but go way up and after two hours all the annoyance is gone," Elisabeth gives an example. Herbal knowledge was also shared and an agreement was reached on how to make Walser mountain tea. If possible, the herbs should not be dried in the dryer, but in the open air without direct sunlight. "We don't control this, however, but leave it up to the women how they do it. It is also about trust, and we have that," Elisabeth emphasises.
They collect and dry the individual plants at home. Ilga and Elisabeth mix the mountain tea with seven different herbs. This is because only pharmacies are allowed to sell individual varieties, such as peppermint or lime blossom tea. "We don't give any medical advice either. Besides, there are already scientific studies that prove the healing powers of herbs. Instead, we want to share the knowledge, experiences and practices of people associated with mountain tea and show the diversity of our mountain herbs," explains Elisabeth.
They therefore take everything from the herb women that they like to collect. They put what they need for their own families and friends on the side and Ilga and Elisabeth collect what is left over. "We take silver mantle, for example, which is picked in the mountains, as well as golden balm or thyme from the women's gardens. But
we don't sow anything," emphasises the co-founder. They don't know in advance which herbs will be used and how much of them. There are years when an herb is not available anyway due to the weather. "That's why we can only make different blends with what nature gives us," says the tea lover.
The herb women see the plants as gifts from nature. "You can't put a price on them. But the effort the women put into collecting them can. That's why we pay them 90 euros for 1 kilogramme of herbs. Of course, that's not an hourly wage for their work, but they are happy. They say that it's not about the money anyway, they just enjoy doing it," says the initiator. A nice thought, of which there are so many in this project. For example, if there is more of one herb than another, this is an indication that people need precisely that herb in winter. "We had years when all the women brought us bags full of birch leaves or yarrow. These are then in every mixture," reveals Elisabeth.
Over the years, the women have collected a number of stories with wisdom and knowledge in addition to the herbs, so that these have been summarised in a book. Herbal knowledge always skips a generation. "Young people in the region are also interested in it, but work, children or other commitments often mean that they don't get back into it until they are grandparents," says Elisabeth. So it's no wonder that people initially think of "old white-haired ladies" when they think of herbalists.
A film crew was also amazed when Elisabeth told them that the idea for mountain tea did not come from her, but from a young student. "They also said that leaving the first flowers to the bees was a PR stunt. As if we needed it, I thought to myself. But then we came up with the idea of writing a book about our story," says the founder. Together with Dr Susanne Grasser, who wrote a study on herbal knowledge at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, and Dr Barbara Fuchs from the Institute for Entrepreneurship at the University of Liechtenstein, who conducted several interviews with students about mountain tea, a book was created that was named one of the most beautiful books in Austria in 2012.
"We wanted to show what mountain tea is for us: not an agricultural project, but a socio-cultural one. So much happens in the exchange and dialogue when collecting, blending and during our tea sessions. It brings people together who didn't even know each other before," Elisabeth emphasises. Another interesting aspect is that in over ten years, there has never been a mix
twice in over ten years. Each mix is unique, just like the people who take part in the initiative.
Anyone who wants mountain tea can simply call Elisabeth in addition to the sales outlets mentioned and she will let you know if there is any left. There is no marketing or sales strategy behind Bergtee, as the project lives from and with nature. "We never wanted to make mountain tea bigger, because you can only do that with things that are available in unlimited quantities, but not with herbs," adds the former teacher and asks deliberately: "Why?" For the women from Fontanella and the surrounding area, this project, the associated mountain tea days and Elisabeth's own tea hikes are always about learning lessons from nature. Deriving insights for themselves and taking what they need into their own lives.
With this in mind, the women have come up with something original for the annual mountain tea days around Easter in the biosphärenpark.haus. They set up a huge box with a special Holy Thursday tea blend. One piece of wisdom says that it can be used against all illnesses. It consists of not seven, but nine herbs. The mountain tea is mixed on this very day and given to guests as a gift because it is holy. "Everyone can take as much tea as they like. But we then say: just take as much as you need," explains Elisabeth. A small but subtle difference in the choice of words that has meant that no one has ever been left empty-handed. The tea ladies also show the whole variety of flowers and leaves that grow here, and the mountain tea book is available at a special price.
The retired headmistress and enthusiastic dialect speaker believes that language is important because it makes a region and its people authentic. Bergtee also shows in an honest way what is possible by appreciating nature and bringing people together on a small scale. "It makes me happy that we continue to inspire and amaze with our story," says Elisabeth happily. Not with a moral hammer, but with a meaningful and meaningful project. "The change we want to see starts with ourselves. If the work is a source of joy, then that is double confirmation that our idea is growing on good ground," concludes the valley resident.