Ivan Chai

photo: wikipedia
– A fermented herbal tea made from wild willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium)

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Photo: Nadin Kuleshova

Fermented willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium) tea was a traditional Russian hot beverage for hundreds of years before it was nearly universally replaced by Indian and Chinese black and green teas. With its rich composition of minerals and vitamins, willowherb makes for a healthy, caffeine-free tea that does not contain harmful uric acid or oxalate. Willowherb tea is also a mild sedative. The plant is abundant in large areas of the Baltic Sea region, and can be fairly easily collected in large quantities from the wild. The fermented herbal tea can be produced in ecovillages with simple devices. As a clean and local product, “Ivan Chai” is an excellent replacement for imported teas. 

History

The Russian name “Ivan Chai” was supposedly coined by foreigners following its export to England and other European countries: “Ivan” is a traditional Russian name, while “Chai” means tea, a word of Indian origin. There was a time when Ivan Chai was the second-most exported Russian item, ahead of even linen and fur! It had three names at the time—Ivan Chai, Russian Chai and Kaporie Chai, namedafter the place where it was produced in huge quantities. Toward the end of the 19th century it began losing ground to the Indian and Chinese teas of the East India Company. After the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia, the commercial production of Ivan Chai ceased. Today, the preparation of Ivan Chai has regained some of its popularity, and has attracted the attention of many producers.

Characteristics of the plant

Willowherb contains micronutrients—trace minerals that are good for the blood—such asiron, titanium, nickel, copper, manganese, lithium, molybdenum, as well as boron, potassium, calcium, sodium, and more. It contains bioflavonoids, glutinous substances, pectin and tannins and it is also rich in both vitamin C (containing more than is found in citruses) and vitamin B. Interestingly, the willowherb growing in the northern regions of the world contains much more vitamin C than that growing in southern regions. The greens of the willowherb also contain protein that is easily and quickly absorbed by the body. Willowherb grows easily and in abundance all over Russia, including the Northwest region, as well as in all neighbouring Baltic Sea countries. Willowherb has many names, and in some places it is called fireweed, since it is the first plant to appear after the land is scorched by fire. It blossoms from June to August, reproducing quickly by wind-dispersed seeds. In wet, moderate climates, it is better to gather the herb in July, before the leaves are too thick—this will considerably decrease the time it takes to dry. The drying of willowherb becomes more difficult after July due to the fact that one must then remove the flowers and seeds, which will otherwise ripen during drying and fly about, coating everything around with willowherb ‘cotton’ and ruining the drying tea leaves (which must then be discarded).

Production instructions

There are dozens of recipes to prepare Ivan Chai. We will describe two main ways Ivan Chai is made in the Grishino Ecovillage (which is located in the region historically known for the production of Ivan Chai).

I Medium-fermented Ivan Chai

1. Gathering the plants: In Grishino, we use wheelbarrows to bring the whole plants in from the field. The plant should be harvested approximately 20 cm from the ground, where the leaves are regular.

2. Removing the leaves/first fermentation: Pick the leaves off by hand and place them in a barrel or some other large container or pan where they will be left for some time during the initial fermentation period. The time this process takes depends upon the temperature of the place where the containers are stored, and varies from several hours to one day. You can check the progress by placing your hand inside the container of leaves to ensure that the temperature hasn’t become too high. Also check the colour of the leaves, which should remain green: if they begin to yellow, the temperature is too high. You must also stir the leaves at this stage to keep them from getting too hot, since heat radiates from the centre of the mass.

Fermentation occurs as the natural enzymes in the leaves start to process the material, which leads to the formation of new aromatic compounds. These natural enzymes are proteins that are deactivated when the temperature is above 60 degrees—if the temperature is too high, the leaves burn and turn yellow, resulting in a tea that smells and tastes sour.

3. Grinding: For grinding, Grishino uses mincing machines. Some producers believe that the tea tastes better if the leaves don’t touch any metal—they therefore use specially made wooden rubbing boards for grinding.

4. For a stronger fermentation, the ground leaves can be formed into small piles and left for a couple of hours (optional).

5. Drying (second fermentation). The mass of ground leaves should now be spread on a sheet or screen tray and dried at a temperature no higher than 60 degrees. How long this takes depends on where you dry the tea and on how wet and hot the weather is. In Grishino there are electric driers and a special drying house with a wood-heated iron stove where it usually takes no less than twelve hours to dry the tea. In some places (for example in the Big Stone Ecovillage) people dry the tea in a Russian stove, and it tastes even better. The finished tea should be really dry, but not so dry as to crumble into powder. When finished, it should be put into sacks, which are then carefully closed and baled in a dry place. Be cautious in weplaces, since the tea may absorb water from the air and decay.

II Rapidly dried Ivan Chai

Steps 1 and 2 are as above.

Step 3. The leaves are heated on a pan atop a small fire, stirring constantly until dry. After this “pan roasting”, the leaves should be further dried at a lower temperature on a stove, with an electric drier or by some other special means (as described above). In some places, people twist the leaves up into little ”sausages” by hand before drying and then put them under a light press for several hours. After this, they cut the “sausages” into pieces, and dry them in pans on low heat.

Producing willowherb tea in Grishino Ecovillage

In Grishino, we prepare Ivan Chai for both personal and commercial use. This herbal tea sells for about 50-100 euros per kg in retail. This small-scale business project uses the labour of helpers and volunteers every July to produce the required quantity of tea. The helpers earn some money from the production of Ivan Chai, while the volunteers receive free accommodation and food, as well as a quantity of tea for themselves. The most valuable part of the process, however, is the good company, the fresh air, the naturally healthy, beautiful environment with the river and forests, and the wonderful smell of Ivan Chai that permeates the air of Grishino in July. One person working 5-6 hours can produce about 5-6 kg of dry tea daily.

The story of willowherb tea at Grishino

The interviewee is Vladislav Kirbiatiev, the leader and one of the first inhabitants of Grishino. He has been at Grishino since 1993, permanently settling there in 1998. I learnt the technology of preparing of Ivan Chai from the locals when I came here my first year. They invited me for tea and when I tasted the Ivan Chai I really liked it. Since I don’t drink black tea at all and only a very little green tea, I started preparing it for myself. A few years ago, we started making it for other people as well. Grishino is a very beautiful place, and big part of its beauty is this huge rose field of wild willowherb—so the place itself gave me this idea.

By the way, making tea is not the only way to use willowherb. It is also a very good honey plant. The sticks can be dried and used to make an infusion to throw on the stones in the Russian sauna: they give the softest steam. This infusion can also be used as a shampoo or an excellent hair conditioner. In May-June, the first tender top leaves of the herb can be used in salads and soups because they are rich in protein and have a nice taste.

 Author: L. Mirzagitova (REEN) 

L.Mirzagitova originally wrote the text for the Leaflet  “Inspiring Stories from Ecovillages: Experiences with Ecological Technologies and Practices” – an output from Ecovillages for Sustainable Rural Development” financed by the EU’s Baltic Sea Region Programme 2007–2013

Ecovillage Grishino, Russia is Associated partner in REALS

Further Information about Ivan Chai and Grishino ecovillage: Vladislav, e-mail: vasudeva@bk.ru