When Russia first imported tea from China—back in the late 1600s and early 1700s—the journey by caravan took over a year. (See previous post for more.)
So what kind of tea would taste good after 16 months of being hauled by a camel?
Well, for tea to survive the arduous journey, it had to be durable. There are stories of tea picking up a smoky taste from the campfires of the caravan, but the tea would have already been dried so that it would travel well. Early black loose leaf tea was probably dried over pine smoke in Fujian, as lapsang souchong is still today.
Russia imported both loose leaf and bricks of tea, although the bricks were more common at first. The bricks were durable and held their flavor—although about that flavor. . . .
According to Nordbye (2013), tea bricks were composed of:
both the better and coarser [tea] leaves, as well as twigs from the shrub (and often binding agents such as flour and manure)
Yep, just the flavor nuances I want in my tea.
Siberians also infused the tea bricks with mutton fat and salt (Nordbye 2013), perhaps because they needed the extra nutrition in their harsh environment (similar to the practice of adding high-fat-content yak butter to tea in the Himalayas). That at least is a bit more palatable.
Anyway, the blend of tea and binding agents were pressed into molds and dried, yielding a brick that weighed about 22 pounds. These bricks were then cut into smaller chunks and “were tightly sewn up in animal hides” before being transported by camel (Nordbye 2013).
Tea was valuable, and the bricks were used as money, even as recently as a hundred years ago in Siberia. By the late 1700s, nearly three million pounds of tea made their way into Russia each year. And by then, tea prices had fallen enough so that the lower-quality bricks were accessible to those lower on the economic spectrum while the upper echelon was sipping the higher-quality loose leaf tea.
Today Russian tea blends continue to have a smoky note. The Russian Samovar shown here is a blend of Ceylon, Chinese, and Indian teas, yielding a robust brew that has a slightly smoky, spicy flavor. (And absolutely no binding agents, palatable or otherwise!)
But you undoubtedly noticed that the “Russian Samovar” tea was not brewed in a samovar. More about the samovar up next!