by the fire

Of Smoke + Spice

2 Teas for the Cold Moons


On this windy November afternoon I brought a thermos of my favorite smoky chai and a crisp mcintosh apple with me to a small copse of Alder trees and Wild Roses by the river. Listening to the breeze keening through the Pines on the mountain above, I sat down in the soft leaf litter and leaned against the silver barked  trunk. All around me, the air was thick with the musky-sweet smell of Autumn turning rapidly to Winter. On the ground, the rust and copper colors of fallen Oak and Maple leaves provided a stark backdrop to the lush green of young Mountain Nettles (Urtica gracilenta) that continue to persist and have been providing our family with nightly meals of Nettle soups and Nettle breads.

Frankly, I’m not sure there’s much in this world better than being curled up in leaves under my favorite trees with the smells of Fall, river water, spices and smoke all mingling together. The only word I can find to describe it is ~rich~. Rich in the sense of delicious and decadent, and rich in the sense of wealth. Simple wealth, certainly, but overwhelmingly satisfying and beautiful just the same.

Yes, this is an article about tea. I won’t be discussing the medicinal qualities or therapeutic actions of the plant, just how good it tastes and some suggestions for creating your own brews made up of smoke and spice. There’s a medicine in this sort of joy and beauty all it’s own. Something deeper than memory, so close to our bones that we might call it primal. Drinking in the sweetness of experience is a talent we humans have when we can just shut our brains up enough to be quiet and feel.

Now, normally I prefer to obtain as much as my medicine, food and beverages locally (and ideally, harvest it myself) as possible. I do make occasional exceptions to feed my obsessive affection for the fermented leaves of Camellia sinensis, as long as I can find high enough quality tea from a reliable, ethical (or rather, as ethical as things like tea and coffee and chocolate can be) source. In particular, I’m a devotee of smokey, strong black tea. This is especially true in Autumn and Winter when all sorts of rich, overt flavors seem to help balance the seemingly monochrome landscape with their sensory power.

The Teas

Preface: I almost always order my tea from Mountain Rose Herbs, partially because I can trust their ethics and partially because they just have excellent tea at a very good price. If you order from somewhere else you may need to adjust the proportions based on variations in taste and strength. That said, please adjust according to your preference as you go along. These aren’t proper recipes anyhow, just basic proportions so that you can create your own cups of smoke and spice.

Proportions here are based on volume. not weight.

Russian Caravan

Russian Caravan is a tea that, in general, is strong, highly caffeinated and ranges from mildly smokey to something tasting rather like cigarette ashes brewed as tea. At its best, Russian Caravan is complex, smokey, full-bodied and with a depth of flavor that few other beverages can match. However, the name of this well known  tea is a bit of a misnomer as the tea brought in caravans from China to Russia was not smokey at all. According to early descriptions, it was actually a delicate, lightly fermented tea that the Russians preferred. Yes, most websites and companies selling Russian Caravan have an elaborate tale about the campfires of the caravans lending their flavor to the chests of tea… but while this is a great story, it’s seems to be just that, a story.

Whatever its origins, I’m a huge fan of Russian Caravan in its modern incarnation. Unfortunately, the quality and taste of the mix can vary a great deal from shop to shop and company to company. Therefore, I blend my own. It’s very simple to get a rich, complex and pleasantly smokey tea from just two or three teas varieties.

  • 3 Parts Assam (if you choose to use a lighter base, such as Darjeeling, you’ll want to use a higher proportion of it to the Lapsang Souchong)

  • 2 Parts Lapsang Souchong (Mountain Rose’s Lapsang Souchong is smoked over Spruce wood and brews to a beautiful red color.)

  • 1 Part Pu’erh (optional but I like the mossy, minerally flavor it imparts and the red color it adds)

HearthFire Masala Chai

Masala chai has become incredibly popular in the US. On one hand I certainly appreciate the availability and myriad variations, but this has also resulted in a great of deal of powdered artificial vanilla-flavored, corn syrup sweetened nastiness that I would put right up there with boxed smoothie mix and red koolaid as far as taste. A good masala chai is a miraculous and delicious thing, especially with a dash of heavy whipping cream and a spoonful of wildflower or buckwheat honey. It really doesn’t need any improving at all but given my penchant for for smokey teas, I decided to make a smokey chai for the Winter months and so far my guinea pigs (otherwise known as friends and family and whoever else will take sips from the cups I push in their direction) concur that smoke and spice make a lovely pair indeed.

For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to assume that you know how to make your own masala chai or that you have a pre-made blend (preferably made with whole tea leaf and spices rather than powdered.) If not, recipes abound, as do excellent blends.

  • 3 Parts Masala Chai (preferably a blend with a fair amount of Cloves included)

  • 1 Part Lapsang Souchong

  • Optional: 1 Part White Fir (or similar Abies species) needles

Yep, that easy… I think this tea tastes even better if brewed an extra minute or two.