Sometimes you’ve got to trek through the steppes of Russia to get a tasty brew – at least that’s what happened to the blend we now know as Russian Caravan tea, which came along as something of an accident.
Unlike other famous blends – Earl Grey or English Breakfast, for example – Russian Caravan, tasting of “campfire, charcoal and chocolate”, evolved by chance. From the late 1600s, huge amounts of tea were exported from Imperial China to Tsarist Russia. Camel caravans over a mile long took at least six months to plod from Asia to Europe, and there were two routes to choose from: a shorter trek that curved around the southern borders of Odessa or the longer one straight through Mongolia and Siberia.
Tea, it was decided, should take the long road. The southern path was far too warm and moist. The northern route – cold and dry – kept the tea leaves’ flavour intact, and even imparted some of its own. Russian tea masters apparently believe that a certain delicate taste is imparted to tea by the tiny amount of moisture absorbed from those snow-covered steppes. And of course, at the end of the day when the caravans ground to a halt and everyone wanted to put their feet up and get warm, campfires gave the tea its distinct smoky flavour.
By the time the tea made it to Russia (to be traded for furs), it was strong and smoky, reminiscent of tobacco and firewood, which the locals associated with warmth and comfort. By chance, they had invented the world’s first unofficial Lapsang Souchong (black tea smoked over pine wood fire), which is still used in the blend today.
Image by Maximillian Schaffhausen