When we think of tea we usually associate it with countries like China, Japan or India but Russia has it’s own rich history of tea drinking and ceremonies.
Whilst researching for this post, I discovered that one of my favourite pieces of kit, my Kelly Kettle* is a modern replica of a traditional Russian “teapot” called a Samovar. Roughly translated, Samovar means self-boiling.
The earliest known version of this energy conserving vessel was found during an archaeological dig in Azerbaijan in 1989 and was estimated to be around 3600 years old.
Ivan Chai is apparently a name coined by foreigners, Ivan being a typical Russian name and Chai sharing etymological roots with our English word, Tea.
Other names include Russian Chai, Fireweed Tea, Rosebay Willowherb Tea and Koporye (various spellings used), named after a historical village near St Petersburg where the tea was mass produced.
Many sources claim this tea was once Russia’s second largest export and more popular in Britain than the familiar black tea of today.
Rosebay Willowherb can be used to make a herbal tea simply by drying the leaves as with other herbs, Ivan Chai, however, is distinguished by a process of fermenting the leaves (but don’t worry, it’s not a complicated process).
There are lots of health benefits associated with this traditional tea; unfortunately, modern science has a tendency to dissect the whole and examine it’s individual components. So although there are studies to confirm certain benefits of the plant and it’s compounds, I can offer nothing specific to the tea itself at this point.
Ivan Chai is caffeine free and said to promote relaxation, help with insomnia, digestive issues, improve mood and concentration and support the immune system.
Studies have confirmed many benefits of Chamerion angustifolium which contains 90% more vitamin A and 4% more vitamin C than oranges.
Compounds of the plant are found to be anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-fungal, active against many bacterial infections including E. coli.
Quite a few studies focus on the tannin oenothein B, shown to have immune modulating properties, antiviral and anti-tumour with potential against hormone-sensitive cancers in both men and women.
Clearly Rosebay Willowherb has been valued in many cultures through many centuries of our existence.
Making Ivan Chai
Making this tea is a very enjoyable Summer ritual. The first step is to gather the leaves, some recipes advise to gather them before the plant is in flower, others when the plant is already flowering but not yet forming seed pods. My own preference is to collect it when it is just beginning to flower but sometimes it is just a matter of opportunity.
Here is a basic guide for the process. I cross referenced several recipes which I have listed below.
The first step is gathering your plants.
Make sure you have identified the plant correctly. You can just collect the leaves from the plants or break off the tops of the stem (about 45cm). Rosebay Willowherb usually grows in large colonies but always harvest responsibly and don’t uproot the plants (doing so is illegal without landowners permission) unless you are planning to use the roots.
The second step is wilting the leaves.
My first attempt at making Ivan Chai was not a success… I happened upon a glorious patch of flowers, which I’d spotted from about half a mile away, whilst on a very long walk on a very hot day. I arrived home, arms laden, exhausted and not relishing the prospect of processing my haul, so I was quite relieved when I read that they should be left overnight. Unfortunately, the walk home in the hot sun had wilted them quite adequately and by the next day they had turned dry and crispy so I was unable to continue with the fermentation. I did keep the dried leaves as a tea though, which was interesting to compare.
The third step is rolling the leaves
Once you have stripped the leaves from the stems, take handfuls and roll them between your palms until they begin to darken in colour as the moisture is released.
Transfer the rolled leaves to a bowl or jar one handful at a time
The fourth step is fermentation.
Once you have rolled all the leaves cover them with a tea towel or loose fitting lid (not air tight) and leave them somewhere warm for up to 24 hours. Keep checking them during this time and moving them around a little. The initial smell will be something like cut grass, once the smell changes to a sweeter smell they are ready for the next stage.
Some sources say to leave them for up to a few days or even longer (I think it depends on the temperature) but wait for the distinctive sweet aroma. It is a pleasant smell that will become very familiar.
The fifth step is drying.
Traditional drying methods also include drying the leaves rapidly in a pan. The heat stops the fermentation process. It will be interesting to experiment with longer fermentation and different drying methods.
Allow the leaves to dry completely before storing in a jar, the flavour will improve with time. Whilst writing this, I brewed myself a cup from last years batch, it was very nice and still has the sweet aroma, I added milk and sugar. After drinking it I was overcome with sleepiness and had to stop writing for a while! Maybe I was just tired…
Thanks for reading!
Have a go at utilising this wonderful plant and let me know how you get on in the comments. Or, if you have experience making this tea, please share your experience, thoughts and advice.
Fireweed – a treasured medicine of the boreal forest – Robert Rogers (click on PDF to view article)