I am a self-confessed tea snob. I would not say that I have highly refined tastes, or that I can pick out the difference between a darjeeling and an assam leaf at fifty paces. I don’t like drinking my tea out of dainty porcelain tea cups that hold about three sips of tea. And I’m positively barbaric when it comes to knowing (or more accurately, not knowing) how to best brew each type of tea. But by god am I fussy about the teas I do like, and the water I put them in. Life, I decided one day, is too short to suffer through drinking bad tea. So I don’t. I drink my tea with filtered water. Seeing limescale in my tea actually makes a little tiny part of my soul whither and die. Sugar is vital. I will try most types of tea once but if you dare threaten to despoil my tea with milk I will never speak to you again.
So, you might say I have strong preferences. And I’m not just talking about black tea versus green tea, caffeinated tea versus the herbal stuff, or even about the epic Irish battle of Barry’s versus Lyons (though I will admit that this household is strictly Lyons).
However, despite all these strong preferences, I’m really easy when it comes to black tea. As long as the quality of the water is reasonably good I’ll drink most black teas with little complaint. So when a recently visiting friend brought me a large tin of Fortnum & Mason’s Russian Caravan tea blend I was quite excited. First of all, I drink a lot of tea at work and since I’ve switched to only drinking loose lea tea there I have been getting through my tea stash at an alarming pace. I mean, I’ve actually run out of earl grey twice this year already, and that has, like, never happened before. Second of all, I have a particular soft spot for Russian Caravan tea.
However, the quality of a Russian Caravan tea can be really hit or miss, and that is because it does not come from a single kind of tea leaf or a particular method of curing tea, but is a blend created of different types of tea, and is therefore subject to the vagaries of its component ingredients. Near as I can tell, keemun and oolong teas are pretty much staple ingredients in a Russian Caravan blend. However, many also add lapsang souchong or use yunnan black tea. Supposedly, the smoky tea blend was an accidental creation as a result of the 6,000 mile journey along the Siberian trade route used by tea merchants to bring tea from China to Russia. The cold climate preserved the tea better than the shorter, southern trade routes, but over the course of the six-month journey the tea slowly absorbed the smoky flavour of the campfires used for warmth by the traders.
I have discovered that people who have strong feelings about loose leaf tea often have equally strong feelings about different brands and blends of Russian Caravan. For example, one of my husband’s aunts is a big fan of Russian Caravan from Whittard of Chelsea. My mother, however, is a fervent believer in the superior quality of the Russian Caravan as made by Suki Tea and for a while despaired of getting her hands on more of it when the Belfast-based company temporarily halted the offering.
A look at the ingredients list for these teas shows why there is such a difference of opinion. All descriptions of different Russian Caravan blends love to evoke the same image of camel caravans and smoky campfires and all have the buzzwords of “warmth, spices, smoky, full-bodied, malty, sweet, etc. However, one uses a blend of Assam, lapsang souchong, and Nepalese tea, while another only has keemun and oolong. The third actually has four ingredients, mixing black tea from China with Assam, and adding green tea and smoked black tea.
I was quite excited to have the unexpected opportunity to try a new-to-me blend of Russian Caravan. I have come to the conclusion that I clearly don’t possess the same strength of feeling about the specific type of Russian Caravan as other members of my family as long as the blend is able to carefully balance the smokiness with the sweetness. My recollection of the Suki tea blend was that it was a bit sharp for me, whereas the Fortnum & Mason blend is almost innocuous, lacking the strong smoky flavour due to the absence of lapsang souchong in the mix. It is a very easy tea to drink but lacks the strength of flavour I have come to expect from a Russian Caravan blend. I cannot now recall the taste of Whittard’s blend, leaving me with the difficult, unenviable, burdensome task of just having to try some more of it next time I get the opportunity. Oh the travails we put ourselves through in the pursuit of our interests!