Tempest in a Teapot
From Russia, With Heat — The Samovar Goes Native
By Tamia Nelson
November 4, 2008
Updated on October 30, 2012
Wouldn't it be great if you could make a cup of tea or coffee and heat up a quick one‑pot meal at the same time, even on those days when the Old Woman bends the birches double and an icy, unrelenting drizzle turns well‑drained campsites into miry wallows? And wouldn't it be better yet if you could do all this without having to haul around a single fuel bottle or canister, and without the nuisance of building a full‑fledged wood fire? Well, I've got some very good news: You can. All you need is a samovar.
OK. Unless your family tree is rooted deep in Russian soil, that word isn't likely to roll easily off your tongue. But the idea is as elegant as it is efficient. Samovar can be translated as "self‑boiler," and that pretty much gives the secret away. Instead of placing your pot on the fire when you want to bring water to a boil, why not wrap the pot around the flames, so that every calorie of heat does its full share of work before making its escape? Why not, indeed? The idea is an ancient one: An Azerbaijani archeologist thinks he's found an ur‑samovar that's more than 3,000 years old. That said, it wasn't until the 19th century that the samovar really came into its own, rapidly achieving iconic status in Russian literature and culture.
But what does all this have to do with backcountry cookery? Well, the samovar was never entirely at home in the respectable drawing rooms of the genteel middle class. The lure of the out‑of‑doors proved too strong to resist. And Russian artisans were making samovars especially for travelers and picnickers from the mid‑18th century onward. Some of these bore more than a passing resemblance to their modern counterparts, too, even if contemporary traveler's samovars are labeled "kettles," and they mostly hail from County Mayo or the UK rather than the workshops of Tula. No matter. Whatever the legend on the box, it contains a stripped‑down samovar — a samovar reduced to its bare essentials, if you will.
You can see a cross‑section of one in the sketch at the head of this column, and here is how it works: You fill the boiler through the spout at the top. The boiler sits atop a vented base which serves as both windscreen and firepan. (It nests tidily in a hollow at the bottom of the boiler when not in use.) A bail handle with an insulating grip is used to lift the samovar off the firepan, while a long chain expedites the job of pouring boiling water into waiting cups. A big cork stopper tethered to the end of the chain allows you to carry water in the boiler when the need arises, without spilling a drop. That means the boiler can also serve as a somewhat awkward canteen — a rather problematic bonus, in truth. With the addition of a pan support, however, the chimney of a camper's samovar does double duty as a primitive cooker, and that's a real plus. It could even be pressed into service to emulate a "proper" samovar, supporting a teapot filled with highly concentrated tea essence (zavarka) and kept constantly on the boil.
What do you think? Does this sound too good to be true? It's not. And there's more. You can accomplish all the aforementioned wonders with a tiny fire built from twigs, pine cones, or wood chips. That means you can leave both your ax and your fuel bottle at home. How cool is that? Or how hot? The answer to both questions is "Very!"
Mind you, I was blissfully ignorant of the many virtues of the samovar until the summer of 2008, and it was Farwell who made the introductions, so to speak. He has a love–hate relationship with pressurized stoves. He likes their convenience, but he's had them blow up in his face once too often. He doesn't fault the stoves, mind you. He blames his own carelessness. Still, he's always on the lookout for more forgiving alternatives, and when he stumbled across a description of the samovar, he experienced a "Eureka!" moment.
And his enthusiasm was infectious. It wasn't long before he'd convinced me to give the samovar a try. So I did.
Out of the Box
The ad copy puffing these little cookers claims that they'll work in the foulest weather and the strongest winds. This is a big selling point, especially when late‑autumn gales drive the first snows of the season across Canoe Country. There's nothing as comforting as a hot drink on a cold day. Or a sultry one, come to that. After all, dehydration is a threat in both winter and summer, and cold can kill in any season. But having plenty of hot water on tap addresses both concerns, and if the samovar worked as advertised, I figured it would be an ideal companion on day trips and weekend adventures all year round, not to mention being a valuable addition to any expedition's portable pantry, as well.
There was one snag. Traveler's samovars aren't easy to come by in the States. But finding things is what the Web is all about, and when I located a fishing outfitter who listed the smallest Kelly Kettle for USD80, I took the plunge. I thought the price was a little steep — though thanks to currency fluctuations, it's now quite a bit cheaper — and the Pot‑Support (the capital letters reflect the fact that Kelly has trademarked the phrase) was another nine bucks, but at least I wouldn't have to buy fuel.
Two days after I placed my order, my Kelly Kettle arrived. Here's a photo of it, with a Sierra Club cup included for scale:
Note the firepan in the middle of the picture. It travels upside down, wedged into the base of the boiler, and it's still upside down in the photo. (The two aluminum plates that fit together to make the Pot‑Support are in the foreground. I'll have more to say about these later.) This was the smallest kettle that Kelly made in 2008, and it has a capacity of something like 20 fluid ounces (US), at least by my (admittedly crude) measurements. The current incarnation, now labeled the Trekker, is apparently even smaller, with only a 17‑fluid‑ounce capacity (approximately 0.5 liters) — though a stainless steel version reputedly holds a bit more. Anyway, whether the capacity is 17 ounces or 20, it's not much: enough for one or two paddlers, at best. Larger parties will want a larger samovar. Weighing in at around a pound and a half, the little Kelly Kettle takes up about as much space as a tightly rolled fleece vest. And assembly is a snap. Remove the firepan from the base of the boiler, turn it right side up, and set the boiler in place. That's it, though if you're also planning on heating a pot of stew (or keeping a pot of zavarka on the boil), you'll need to slot the two halves of the Pot‑Support together and plug them into the chimney‑top. Now you're cooking!
Well, almost. If you're hoping to do more than snap a few pictures, you'll have to fill the boiler with water first. And build and light a fire, of course. But that's not too much trouble, is it? It shouldn't be, at any rate. Let's find out…
Fire in the Hole!
First things first:
Is It Safe? Wood fires — even when confined to firepans — aren't always permitted. Check before you strike a match. And remember that "legal" isn't the same thing as "good to go." Even where and when they're allowed, wood fires are sometimes unwise. So use your common sense, and take the same precautions that you would with any campfire. Clear the area around and under the samovar's firepan, removing anything that could burn. A sandy beach, rock outcrop, campsite grill, or stone fireplace is ideal. The hull of a plastic boat is not. (The firepan gets hot!) Check that your chosen site is flat, too. These samovars stand tall, but they have narrow bases. Putting a pot on top makes the whole teetering edifice even more unstable. The remedy? Keep everything on the level. It's not always easy, I admit, but the makers of the Eydon STORM Kettle and Ghillie Kettle offer insurance in the form of tripod stabilizers, at least for some of their models. That's a very good idea.
Don't let your wits wander when you light up, either. Boiling water can scald you skinless, and fire is always dangerous. So be prepared. Keep a weather eye on the wind, and have a "fire bucket" handy (a filled pot will do) to douse any stray sparks before they can start a blaze. Lastly, protect your hands. Wear heavy leather gloves when handling hot pots, or use a pot‑gripper. No gloves or pot‑gripper? Then use a cotton bandanna. You did bring a bandanna, didn't you?
Gather Wood. A traveler's samovar doesn't take much fuel, but you won't want to run out, particularly if you'll be heating up a one‑pot meal. How much is enough? Well, the picture on the right shows a pile of twigs and a few curls of bark, all gleaned from a single branch of a windfall birch. This was more than enough to bring 0.6 liters of water to a boil. The secret? Think small. When gathering wood, two inches is plenty long enough. Three inches borders on too long. And anything much bigger around than your index finger is definitely too big. To reiterate: You can leave your ax at home. In samovar cookery, small is beautiful. (A sturdy knife or light hatchet — something along the lines of Nessmuk's "limber‑go‑shiftless pocket‑ax", though with only a single bit — can be mighty useful in wet weather, however.)
Get Water. Fill the boiler to just below the level of the spout. (If it's too full, boiling water will "bump" out. Not good.) Don't replace the cork in the spout! It should only be used when carrying water to your campsite. If you're planning on brewing up tea or coffee for a crowd — and a crowd can be as few as two, if you have a small samovar like the Kelly Kettle Trekker — you'll need to have water near at hand to refill your boiler. A collapsible bucket or water bag is ideal. It can also double as the "fire bucket" I mentioned above.
All set? Then it's time to …
Lay Your Fire. This is where your fire‑making skills will be put to the test. But it's fire‑laying in miniature. Once again: Think small. The photo on the left in the panel below shows my first attempt. It's a compendium of errors. There's too little structure, and some of the fuel is simply too big. My fire smoldered and stuttered. And then it went out. The next time, I built a tepee of twigs. The photo on the right shows how it looked. It did the trick.
A few hints: A brisk breeze actually improves a samovar's performance. Turn the base so that the vents face into the wind. If you're a long‑time stove user, this requires an attitude adjustment: Sheltered crannies are not the best places to set up your boiler. Take a look at the photo below. Someone who usually cooks on a conventional pressurized camp stove would probably set his firepan on the fireplace grate, out of the wind. Bad idea! The more exposed location on the wall of the fireplace is far and away the better spot. (Plus, you won't have to bend over so far to tend the fire. Your back will thank you for that.) And, yes, despite the fact that the woods were damp from a heavy dew, I cleared away the leaves in the picture before lighting up.
Once you've laid your miniature fire, place the boiler on top of the firepan, checking to see that it's firmly seated. Remember to remove the cork, and be sure to flip the bail over to the side opposite the spout.
Now you're all set to …
Light Up. The vent holes give you access. I often use a butane lighter, but a match will work as well (or better — the lighter's flame doesn't have much of a reach). If you've laid your fire carefully and there's a bit of a breeze blowing, it will catch immediately, though damp wood may require some encouragement. And what if there's no breeze to speak of? Just use your lungs to force the draft. A length of tubing with a metal tip makes this easier, as does the pump for an inflatable — or a bicycle tire pump, if you're on an amphibious jaunt. Once the fire is burning vigorously, you can add more fuel through the chimney. A word to the wise is in order here: Keep your fingers well back from the chimney's fiery maw, and use short lengths of small stuff only. If a piece of wood is too big to slip down easily, it's too big. Period. Don't be in too much of a hurry to add wood, either. A surfeit of fuel will smother your fire rather than feed it. Better a steady "drizzle" of wood than an occasional downpour.
Here's what you'll see when your fire gets going:
Did you spot the lance of flame rising from the chimney? It's not always this obvious, but you can count on it being there whenever there's a fire in the pan. Paddlers with long hair (or long beards) should exercise care. Other points worthy of note: The chained cork is kept at a safe distance from the firepan. Furthermore, the bail is on the side opposite the spout — you can grab it without scalding your hands — and the spout is angled away from the vents. If my boiler bumps, the surging water won't put out the fire.
Things are looking good. Before you know it, it will be time to …
Pour It On. You won't have to guess when the pot is boiling. You'll see clouds of steam pulsing from the spout and hear water bubbling in the boiler — or if you have a Gillie Kettle, you'll be alerted by a cheerful whistle. But don't get carried away in your eagerness for a hot cup of tea. The next step is one requiring a fully engaged brain‑housing group. If you value your skin, do NOT just grab the bail and lift the boiler off the firepan. Ignore this advice and your hand and arm will end up right over the chimney, while the tongue of flame you can see in the photo above will leave you in no doubt that you've made a mighty big mistake. Instead, grasp the bail on either side, taking care to hold it at right angles to the body of the boiler. Now lift carefully. Once the samovar is no longer over the firepan — and only then — you can let it hang from the bail and use the chain to tip the boiler and pour.
This is a good time to take a closer look at what I found in the firepan after its first use:
See the longer twigs, pointing skyward at all angles? They're too long. If I'd needed to heat more water, I'd have had to remove them before I could replace the boiler on the firepan. Check out the embers and ash spilling from the vents, too — yet another reason to make certain that your samovar rests on a non‑combustible surface. And what of the dark stain on the stone, under the firepan? It's water. I overfilled my boiler, and it bumped. Read and heed, as they say.
All done? Then you'll need to …
Kill the Fire. Set the samovar aside to cool, and allow the embers in the firepan to burn out while you drink your tea or coffee. Don't imagine that your fire's dead just because you can't see any glowing coals, though. Drown it with water to be sure. When you can put your hand in the ashes, the fire's out — and not before.
Are you ready to pack up and go? Just drain any water remaining in the boiler, cork loosely, and return the inverted firepan to its place in the hollow at the boiler's base. Be gentle. Don't force the firepan into the hollow, or you'll have the devil's own time getting it off at your next stop. In fact, you may have a devil of a time prying the firepan loose, anyway. Pine tar makes an excellent glue. Which is why it pays to insert a thin shim between boiler and firepan before returning the firepan to its berth. (I use a small piece of soft plastic cut from a lid that once graced a can of ground coffee.) Then, when all the bits have been assembled, it's time to bag 'em up. A plastic liner will keep the stuff sack clean. An old bread bag works fine.
This sounds like quite a complicated ritual, but it's not. You'll be back on the water before you know it.
Easy, wasn't it? (And it will be even easier for you, since you can avoid my mistakes.) But we're not done yet. There's still the business of …
Cooking on a Samovar
First, though, let me dispel any illusions. A samovar is not suited to elaborate meals. It's limited to heat‑and‑eat dishes. Farwell food, in other words. But that's not so bad, is it? Every meal can't be a four‑course feast.
Here's the drill: If you want boiling water for drinks and you also want to heat something on the stove, boil the water and pour the drinks first. Then fill your boiler as before and set it back on the firepan, after assembling the pan support and fitting it in place. It's vitally important that you refill your boiler, by the way. Never heat an empty boiler!
This is how my set‑up looks:
You'll need to feed the fire constantly, so be sure you've got plenty of small stuff on hand, already broken to length. (Two‑inch lengths, remember?) If you've done everything right, you'll see a spike of flame shooting out of the chimney. Cover your pot, too. It will heat faster. (I hope I'll take my own advice someday!) Now just keep adding fuel, a little bit at a time, until the pot is boiling. And don't forget that if a piece of wood is too big to slide easily under the pan support, it's too big. Don't try to force the issue.
That's all there is to it. Your meal will soon be ready to eat, and there'll be hot water in the pot for another cup of tea, into the bargain. Ambitious cooks will be able to do more: fry eggs, brown sausages, boil quick‑cooking rice. But be sure to experiment at home first, and keep the cooker's limitations in mind. A samovar is not the stove of choice for backcountry gourmets who insist on lavish, multi‑course dinners.
There you have it — my first impressions. And I'm happy to say that later experience has born out almost everything I wrote back in 2008. The samovar warrants thoughtful consideration by any paddler who prizes efficiency and economy, particularly if his (or her) menu doesn't range much beyond hot drinks, instant soups, and freeze‑dried meals. Since that's a lot of us, a lot of the time, I'd better say something about …
The State of the Mart
Or to put it another way, what's in a name? Good question. Although I've found my Kelly Kettle to be serviceable, if I were shopping for a new samovar today, I'd be taking a close look at other makers' products. The Kelly Kettle's two‑piece Pot‑Support is a particular sore point, since the chimney obstruction created by the interlocking plates makes the already fussy business of maintaining a fire even fussier. Both the Eydon STORM Kettle and the Gillie Kettle look better in this regard. Their wire pan supports should make it easier to feed the fire, with less likelihood that a slightly oversize piece of wood will get stuck halfway down the chimney. There are other considerations, too, both aesthetic and practical. Eydon's stylish black 0.85‑liter Poppin Kettle would be ideal for a paddling couple who like really big cups of tea, for instance, and the Ghillie Kettle has a whistle to let you know when your water's on the boil. Talk about home comforts!
The upshot? Don't rush into your purchase. Take a few minutes to shop around for the samovar that suits you best. Whichever one you choose, it's not likely you'll regret your purchase.
But are there any caveats and cautions? Yes, there are. A few. And with one exception, they apply equally to all makes and models:
- The base gets mighty hot (it's a firepan, after all).
- The boiler is taller than it's wide, so use great care in choosing a place to set up your samovar. As noted, Eydon and Gillie both sell tripod stabilizers for some of their kettles, and these are well worth considering.
- Don't leave the stopper in the spout when boiling water (the Ghillie Kettle's whistle being an obvious exception here), and …
- Always point the spout away from the vent holes (and your face).
- Never heat an empty samovar, but …
- Don't overfill the boiler, either.
- And never, ever forget that there's a fire in the hole — keep your fingers and face away from the chimney at all times!
Of course, most paddlers won't need these reminders, but even old hands have been known to suffer from brain‑fade now and then. I know I do. And it's better to be safe than sorry, right?
Now I think I'll make myself a cup of tea.
Travelers have been taking samovars with them for centuries. It's one way of bringing along some home comforts when you venture off the beaten track. Are you tired of carrying fuel bottles in your pack? (Or lugging spent fuel cartridges out at trip's end?) Would you like to leave your ax and saw in the garage? Then why not give a samovar a try? There's no better way to brew up a tempest in a teapot.
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