Russians took up tea drinking long before the Dutch began trading with China for it. No surprise. Russia spans two continents — Europe and Asia — and borders China, the source of the tea. Caravans reached them easily on the “Great Tea Road” (part of the famous “Silk Road”), carrying that special cargo.
At first the high price made tea only available to the wealthy. As the price became more affordable around the time of Peter the Great, this hearty and warming beverage became a staple of Russian life.
Black tea (only loose, large-leaf, never teabags), usually sweetened with sugar, jams, or fruits, is the standard. It’s served hot in winter and even in the record-breaking temperatures they experienced this past summer. A cup of tea usually has about 1-3 teaspoons of sugar or other sweetener per cup and lemon (but not milk), and a selection of pastries (pies, crêpes, or pancakes), sweets, etc. While black tea is the most common, green tea is becoming more popular due to the impression that it is a more healthy and “Oriental” style.
Tea is available all during the day, facilitated by the samovar, an item developed in the 17th century. Its design is based on kettles used by the Mongols from as early as the 13th century. Samovars are all-in-one tea steeping centers, with a container for heating the water and a teapot for steeping. Modern ones have electric water heating compartments. Some samovars even have two teapots (one for tea type A, the other for tea type B).
Most commonly, tea in Russia is consumed after meals or in mid-afternoon to bridge the gap between lunch and dinner. The affair is centered around the samovar. The family and any guests gather around it, pour tea from the teapot into their glasses set in holders, add hot water from the bottom portion of the samovar, and then sweeten it. The stronger the tea in the teapot is, the more hospitable the host is perceived to be.
Those glasses in holders are the usual drinking implement. They’re called podstakanniks (“thing under the glass”). The high-end ones are made of silver. Others are nickel silver, cupronickel, other nickel alloys, or plated with silver or gold.
If you’re planning a visit to Russia, look for a tearoom there. You’ll be able to get a true Russian tea experience, one that will remain in your memory for the rest of your life. What an adventure!
Make sure to stop by A.C.’s blog, Tea Time with A.C. Cargill!