Make Room for Russian Tea – Part 1

Russian Caravan TeaAs a first-generation American, and daughter of Russian immigrants, I grew up steeped in Russian tea traditions. My first memories of tea are the sweet smell of strong black tea alongside fruits or black bread with jam, which we had every afternoon and evening. I have passed along many of these traditions to my daughters. And today, I’m writing about the tea traditions of my Russian ancestors.

Russia, land of the samovar, is a great consumer of what is traditionally called “Russian Tea”, even though no tea grows there. Russians drink mostly black tea. Tea in Russia is always served hot, either in hot weather or as a thirst–quencher. One cannot imagine Russian tea without the samovar, adopted in the 17th century and inspired by Mongol kettles used since the 13th century. The samovar is a combination bubbling hot water heater and teapot. In summer the samovar is placed on a table in the garden; in the winter, inside, with a long pipe for the smoke to escape directly into the chimney of the house.

Tea is said to have been introduced into Russia in 1616 when a Cossack by the name of Tyumenets returned from a diplomatic mission to Mongolia with samples of Chinese tea. The first exports of tea began from northern China into Mongolia as bricks and bales of compressed tea harnessed on the backs of camels and mules. The warm beverage brewed from the shavings of the tea bricks became crucial to the diets of the Mongolian nomads, as the tea substituted as a vegetable, and was consumed daily. The cost of tea was initially prohibitive and available only to wealthy Russians. In 1638, a gift of two hundred packets of tea were sent as a gift from the Mongol ruler to Tsar Mikhail Fedorovich, to which he responded that he would have preferred sables.

By the time of Peter the Great, the price had dropped. Hearty, warm, and sustaining, tea was ideally suited to Russian life. Russia’s growth into a major tea-drinking nation owed much to the opening of the overland caravan route across Mongolia following the signing of the Nerchinsk treaty with China in 1689. Tea was brought from China to Russia by this “Great Tea Road”. This was a part of the famous Silk Road. The journey was not easy, taking over sixteen months to complete 11,000 miles. The average caravan consisted of 200 to 300 camels. The tea brought along this route took the form of loose-leaf tea packed into chests.

From the 1860’s this was supplemented and indeed surpassed by brick tea made at Russian factories set up in Hankou, China, a major tea-trading region on the banks of the Yangtze River in Hubei Province. Subsequently, the Trans-Siberian railway, from the start of the twentieth century, brought an end to the camel caravan. Tea was now shipped from China to Vladivostok and then taken across Russia by rail. In addition, starting in 1892, plantations were established along the Black Sea coasts of Georgia, in the northern Caucasus, and in Azerbajan near the Caspian Sea.

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