Thursday, January 15, 2015

Blending Russian Caravan Tea

In the last pages of my favorite travelogue- Tent Life in Siberia, George Keenan writes his team's progress was much hindered for about 1000 miles as the road was clogged by endless horse caravans quarter of mile to a mile long carrying hundreds of hide-bound boxes of tea.  The China tea had journeyed across the Gobi- he writes such tea caravans left Irkutsk daily for Nizhni Novgorod.

"Russian Caravan" is a historic blend that was delivered by and named after such tea caravans from China to czarist Russia. The often cited camel caravans must have been for the segment of the journey across Mongolia - that would be the double humped Bactrian camel if you need a visual aid.  I had my first cup of Russian Caravan from a blue Twinings bag in college.  Only recently at work, I've gotten into the habit of blending my own Russian Caravan in the mornings. Drinking straight up Lapsang Souchong daily has dulled my palate and one needs variety. 

Commercially available Russian Caravan is not as consistent as Earl Grey and blends vary wildly by vendor.  Most often I've seen Lapsang Souchong added to other hongcha- often Keemun or Yunnan Gold and even Assam.  Although the maltiness of Assam pairs well with LS, it's the least authentic of the recipes as the Caravan teas were historically Chinese in origin.  Sometimes even oolong is added.  I've also seen blends where even LS is left out.  

As you well know, it's never a good idea to drink any LS - blend or otherwise- from a teabag or from any commercially mass available source.  The tar smoke will kill you.  You'd have to make own your blend if you wanted quality Zhengshan Xiaozhong in your Russian Caravan. The joy of pinching together a blend right before brewing allows one to match the blend to the exact mood.  Cold dark mornings- you can go for more maltier blend with lower grade LS and dian hong.  In the afternoons, I tend to add more oolong for a lighter sweeter taste to finer grade AA+ LS with quality Darjeeling. On the spot blending is super fun.

On the Northern California coast, you can visit the remnants of a Russian Settlement at Fort Ross.  The Russians were here to hunt otter- one of the few goods the Chinese coveted.  In order for Russians to trade for Chinese teas, porcelain and silk, the Pacific Northwest otter population was wiped out and still today you won't see otters north of Monterrey Bay.  It's sad but if you've ever touched an otter pelt, you will know why.  Even-though the idea of an otter pelt is evil as otters are an endangered species and impossibly cuddly- after caressing the sample pelt at the museum, I instantly wanted such a luxurious scrap of fur for myself.

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