The story of how Russian Caravan tea gained its name and flavour seems to wind back upon itself like… well, like a trade route through mountainous terrain. Let’s set the record straight to begin with: this tea does not come from Russia. It’s a blend of Chinese black teas which will vary according to brand (and there are no hints about origins at all on a Twinings packet).
I have wondered before about the labels attached to tea blends and come to the conclusion that marketing plays a part, but tea history certainly figures in this one. This blend is named for the couriers and merchants who transported leaves or bricks of tea from deep within China either to Russia or through Russia to other parts of Europe from the late 1600s or so.
Either way, picture this: wiry humans carrying more than their weight in tea through terrain that is simply too treacherous to sustain the foothold of any other beast. Then, when the route opens out to the vast open deserts and grasses of Mongolia and Russia: hundreds and hundreds of camels loping along with aromatic, valuable, delicious tea cargo. Depending on whether you count from the tea garden origin in Yunnan or from after the tea has been inspected, weighed and packaged in Mongolia, the journey takes either half a year or nearly two to reach its destination in a teapot or samovar.
Naturally, since it wasn’t easy to get hold of, this stuff was expensive and rare. The name has retained some of its exotic cachet, even though the caravans ceased during the early twentieth century due to the implementation of railways, the development of new tea-growing regions and war.
Traditionally, tea named Russian Caravan has a slight smoky flavour (although due to a lingering head cold I can’t confirm whether this is the case with my Twinings sample). Legend has it that the couriers’ camp fires infused the cargo with smoke, adding depth to its flavour. It’s probably more true that the tea was dried over pine wood fires by the Chinese growers in preparation for the journey, as described by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson in their book “Tea Classified”. These days a touch of Lapsang Souchong is often added to the black tea blend to evoke this quality.
Even without a blocked nose, I’m not sure that dunking a teabag is really the best way to experience this historic beverage. I’ve noticed that you can pick up an old samovar online, either antique/ornate, or Soviet/electric. The time and expense to have one of those shipped here might help me recreate the true mystique of some real Russian Caravan tea.