Ecstasy is a glass full of tea and a piece of sugar in the mouth. – Alexander Pushkin
If you’re like me, then when you think of great tea-drinking nations, you probably think of the United Kingdom. Who are actually topped in tea-drinking by countries like Turkey, where they consume nearly three times as much as the Brits on a per capita basis. Then, there’s Morocco, Ireland, and Mauritania, all of which fill the spots on the list just ahead of the UK.
One of the countries that you might not think of when you think of great tea drinkers is Russia. But they have a long history of tea drinking and are credited with popularizing and possibly even inventing the samovar, one of the world’s earliest tea gadgets.
Given the proximity of the two countries, it’s probably no surprise that China eventually started trading one of their precious and unique commodities – tea – with Russia. Russians are first thought to have tasted tea – at least according to the historical record – in the early seventeenth century when envoys from the Tsar, who were dispatched to Mongolia in 1616, encountered a strange beverage made with leaves. About two decades later Mongolia made a gift of about 600 pounds of tea (though that amount varies, depending on the source) to the Tsar. His envoy grumbled a bit, remarking that furs would have been a better choice than these curious leaves.
But tea began to catch on, and by 1674 a Swedish envoy noted that it was being sold in Moscow for 30 kopeks a pound and was claimed to be a remedy for the ills brought on by drinking too much of the harder stuff. By the early to mid-eighteenth century tea had begun to regularly make the long journey from China to Russia, often by camel caravan. Much like in Britain, as the popularity increased and larger supplies were imported, prices fell even further and things began to snowball. By 1810, according to one source, one Russian trading guild was responsible for importing nearly three million pounds of tea into the country.
And so it went. Nowadays the Russians are not ranked all the way at the top of the world’s tea drinking nations. But the beverage is still something of an institution there and enough tea is consumed to put Russia’s citizens fifteenth on the list of tea drinking peoples.
See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.
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