Continued from Tuesdays With Norwood: Mandarin and Muscovite – Part 1

Ordinary caravans numbered two hundred to three hundred camels and took almost a year for the trip from Moscow to Usk Kayakhta and back. Reckoning about six hundred pounds to the camel, more knowledgeable authorities than I estimate Russia was receiving over six hundred camel loads of tea annually soon after 1700. It was so costly-fifteen rubles per pound in 1735 that only aristocrats could afford to buy tea at first. But in that year the Czarina Elizabeth-whether with an eye to profit or a taste for tea is not recorded-established a regular private caravan trade and tea became increasingly plentiful.

By the time Catherine the Great died in 1796, Russia was consuming over six thousand camel loads of tea per annum-better than 3.5 million pounds! This is especially impressive when you reflect that nobody had invented a faster camel. What they had invented, probably as early as Elizabeth’s time, was the samovar, a Russian word which means “self-heater.” The likeliest explanation I can come up with for this invention is that the samovar is a modification of the Mongolian fire pot, which operates on the same principle and was used by the trans-Ural nomads for cooking. Be that as it may, the samovar soon became a feature of everyday life throughout Russia. For reasons of tradition and economy, Russians were accustomed to a single, if mammoth, daily meal, and high and low resorted to the samovar the rest of the time, generally sipping their tea from glasses through a sugar cube held between the teeth.

To be concluded in Tuesdays With Norwood: Mandarin and Muscovite – Part 3