A Smoky Cup Of Ancient History: Russian Caravan
People have been drinking tea (Camellia sinensis) in China for thousands of years. But aside from a few random mentions of tea by Marco Polo and other early explorers, tea was largely unknown in the West until the 15th century, when it really took off and “became a thing” across Europe.
But today, this article will focus a specific type of tea with a strange flavor and an interesting history called Russian Caravan.
During the late 1600’s, a trade route opened up between Imperial China and Tsarist Russia to trade tea and other items for Russian furs. Traders led heavily-laden camels on a 16 month long journey from China’s Fujian Province through Mongolia, Siberia, and across Russia.
There was a shorter route the traders could have followed, but the air was moist and would have damaged the precious imperial cargo. Instead, they took the longer, icier, and more arduous route because the cold, dry climate preserved the integrity of the tea.
Every day, for over a year, the traders and their camels trekked across the icy tundra. During the even colder nights, the caravan would hunker down next to the road around campfires to rest and get warm. The camels with their burdens of tea were also parked next to the fire.
Like everything else in the caravan, the tea started to acquire the flavor and aroma of the woody, smoky campfire. By the time the tea made it to Russia, the tea was remarkably strong and smoky. To purists, this spelled disaster. Fortunately, the intense smokiness suited the Russians’ taste for strong flavors and aromas. What started out as a happy accident turned into a new favorite with Russian and, later, European tea lovers. It would come to be named Lapsang Souchong.
Always refining and perfecting, tea producers experimented with blends, adding Black tea and Oolong to the Lapsang Souchong. This would round out and soften the strong notes. It also provided nuance and balance to the flavor and aroma creating a blend that’s now called Russian Caravan.
Today there are efforts to reopen the tea caravan, this time by train.
My personal opinion: Russian Caravan tastes like a campfire in a cup. It’s got a savory flavor that can be mixed with softer and sweeter notes, such as cinnamon for sweetness, and vanilla, which mellows the smokiness. One of our customers drinks Russian Caravan with a teaspoon of orange marmalade stirred in.
And you can cook with it! Make a strong concentrate of the tea by steeping 3 teaspoons of the tea in half cup of hot water for 1 – 2 minutes. Strain out the tea leaves and add the tea to soups (mushroom and potato soups are pretty bomb with a little Russian Caravan), marinades, and sauces. If you’re a craft cocktail kind of person, infuse vodka with Russian Caravan and maybe a vanilla bean, and mix with a splash of o.j. or coconut milk.
To get you in the mood for trying new exotic flavors check out this music by Hanggai, a band from Mongolia who blends modern electric rock/metal with ancient and traditional Mongolian melodies and instruments. I fell in love with their music when I saw them in concert at the MIM. Like many indigenous people around the world, Mongolians are living in the present, while striving to honor and preserve their ancient nomadic heritage. So check it out, sip on some smoky tea, and rock out some unique and beautiful new music.
Check out The Hu if you haven’t! Another Mongolian band I am obsessed with!