FOOD HISTORY: TEA: Part 2 - Russia

While China had trade relations with Mongolia thru Tibet for some, time trading goods with both of these countries for horses to be used in spice trade caravans, tea was first officially traded with Mongolia in the horse trading town of Kalgan in 1571. However, it wasn’t until after 1579 that tea was traded throughout Mongolia. This was an important event in the spread of tea throughout Eurasia. In 1567, Russian Cossacks visited China and tasted tea for the first time and in 1638, a Russian ambassador, Vasily Starkov, brought a present of tea from a Mongolian Khan to the Tsar of Russia.  Later, in 1728, a Russian settlement, Kyakhta, was established in Siberia on the border of Russian Siberia and Mongolia. This became the center of China tea trade via Mongolia between northern China and Russia over a very long caravan route through the Gogi desert. This route became known as “The Tea Horse Road” extending tea trading from China to the eastern boundaries of Europe.

 Because the trade route between China and Russia was so treacherous, the cost of tea was very high and, therefore, only was available to royalty and the very wealthy. However, by the end of the 1700’s tea trade had increased, tea prices were reduced and tea was making its way into regular Russian society. While tea was appealing to much of Russian life style, because it was warm and hearty, for quite a long time, Russian women did not drink tea - they preferred traditional drinks to a hot and non-sweet foreign one. Further, the Russian Orthodox Church did not accept the drink at once either. However, a short time later, tea became an indispensable attribute of the monastic life -  monks appreciated the ability of tea to sustain spiritual and physical strength. When  the British, prominent customers for Chinese tea, were gradually shifting their purchases away from China to India and Ceylon, China became more interested in increasing tea trade with Russia. This was achieved when the Russian Trans Siberian Railways were constructed to cut across the vastness of Siberia to Mongolia and China, making the very long and expensive "Tea Horse Road" journey no longer necessary. This significantly reduced the cost of tea to the Russian people and increased both the demand and popularity of the drink. Over the years, tea became such a large part of Russian culture that a special device - a Samovar – was developed to heat and boil water for tea. Samovars are now very ornate and are kept in Russian homes in “a place of pride”. Next to vodka, tea is now the most popular drink in Russia and, today, Russia is among the top tea consuming countries in the world.