The Dawn of Russian Breakfast Tea

russian-webBesides those intrepid tea drinkers in Scotland, England, and Ireland who have honed breakfast tea customs, there are the Russians. Tea drinkers for centuries, they have their own version of the morning (and afternoon and mid-afternoon and evening) tea. As Fyodor Dostoyevsky put it:

I say let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea.

Russia awakens to tea—

Tea was first introduced to the country in the early 1600s but the story goes that the tsar—never having had tea before—attempted to chew it rather than brew it.

In the mid-1600s, Tsar Aleksey Mikhaylovich was given tea medicinally, obviously with better results because traders were soon working to get more of it.

—and avidly imports a lot of it

Once the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk clearly identified the boundary between Russia and China, trade caravans were able to more safely travel between the two empires—and tea was a hot item!

Trade, however, continued to be challenging.

First a road was needed . . . through forest, swamp and bog, permafrost, mountain. Serfs and convicts were recruited (because, clearly, no one would actually volunteer for this!), but it took almost a century to fully construct the Great Siberian Trakt, which ran from Moscow to Kalgan in northern China.

The Treaty of Kyakhta in 1728 established primary trading centers in both Russia and China, so Kyakhta was built on the Mongolia-Russia border. This remote city handsomely profited from the lucrative trade—and was eventually dubbed the “Sandy Venice.”

By the mid-1800s, almost two-thirds of the imported tea came through Kyakhta. And we are talking a lot of tea:

as many as 5,000 cases of tea were unloaded daily, eventually accounting for up to 90 percent of all goods imported into Siberia (Nordbye 2013).

In China, the “Tea Road” between Kyakhta and the tea plantations in Fujian’s Wuyi Mountains ran over 3,000 miles; the journey took months.

And altogether, it took around sixteen months to travel the 11,000 miles from Fujian—through mountain ranges and across the Gobi desert—to Moscow. Until the late 1700s, tea was (understandably) a luxury for only the wealthy and royal.

At its height, the largest China–Mongolia trade company, Dashengkui, employed 7,000 and had 20,000 camels. With each camel carrying 400–600 pounds, that’s roughly 8,000,000–12,000,000 pounds of tea!

On-the-Amur-River,-Russia,-web
On the Amur River, Russia, by William Henry Jackson, 1895

The road to nowhere

When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, however, traders began loading tea on ships rather than camels. Transporting by sea cost them only one-tenth of caravan transport!

Then in 1904, the Trans-Siberian Railroad pretty much ended the era of caravan—the journey by rail took a bit more than one week. . . .

In 1907, although Luigi Barzina (Nordbye 2013) wrote that all of Kyakhta’s riches “have dried up,” and the Great Siberian Tea Road had served its purpose, Russians were still wholeheartedly embracing tea and had made breakfast tea their own.

Coming next, a look at what teas the Russians were drinking

(See earlier posts on English Breakfast Tea and Irish Breakfast Tea)


Sources:
–Xinhua News Agency. “Ballad sheds light on historical tea trade,” China Economic Information Service, April 8, 2015.
–Delaine, L. “Tea time in Russia,” Russian Life, russianlife.com/blog/tea-time-in-russia, accessed October 2015.
–Nordbye, N. “The great Siberian tea road,” Russian Life May/June 2013.
Note:  Russian Samovar tea shown here is available at TeaHaus.com.

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