In the middle of winter when it’s -30 degrees Celcius (-22 Fahrenheit) it would certainly stand to reason to warm up the body with vodka, but the first choice would have to be Chai or to the westerner tea. Either way it’s the first choice of drink for Russians and not necessarily for the winter time. Many Russians drink this drink in the summertime also, no matter the season it’s the all around favorite here in Russia. In our home we have at least three different types of tea, and it’s not always in a tea bag. We will often brew loose tea along with a sprig of mint to add flavor especially once we can start harvesting mint from our garden.
Chai was first introduced to Russia by the Mongols since they were on the trade route from China to Russia. Traders brought Chai through Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk, Tobolsk, then Tyumen and finally into the Ural town of Irbit. The annual Irbit winter fair was the second largest in Russia at the time, which brought the tea with the fur trade from Siberia and on into central Asia. It was here in Irbit that the Urals tea would be packaged in finely packaged and decorated boxes, then sent along to the Moskovia region. An interesting side note, the Ministry of Tourism of the Sverdlovskaya oblast is developing a new tourist route which is called the “Great Tea Road”, which will be a good opportunity to visit some off the beaten track places in the Urals and Siberia.
Instead of sitting around the fireplace drinking tea the family would gather around a large iron samovar in the middle of winter waiting to enjoy piping hot Chai which they sip from gold-rimmed tea cups that would cool down the tea very quickly. Russian noblemen of the time found this to be very vulgar and inappropriate and would drink their tea from a gilded glass holder. In pre-Revolutionary Russia there was a joke “что после чаю следует?” (‘what follows after tea?’) with the correct answer being “the resurrection of the dead” from the creed. Then later in the 19th century you would find Russians drinking a cup of tea with a cube of sugar between their teeth. Even in the Soviet prisons the inmates would drink a very strong tea known as “chifir” to experience its mood-altering properties.
In 1814 at the Nikitsk botanical gardens became the location of the first plant producing tea in Russia. The first industrial tea plantation was established in 1885. Today the world’s most northernmost tea plantation is in Sochi which is still in production. The first tea plants were brought to the Sochi area from China. But it was only a few decades later that the local farmers had learned how to properly cultivate the plantations. Until recently they were still collecting the crops by hand. One can enjoy a great cup of Chai in village of Izmailovka not far from Sochi, maybe even before the Olympics arrive.