Every tea-drinking culture around the world has developed their own containers for the purposes of preparing and drinking tea. Some of the most beautiful and elegant of this tea ware is a legacy of the grandeur that was once Imperial Russia.
Along with stately samovars and exquisite Lomonosov porcelain, Russia has given the world podstakanniki, or Russian tea glasses. Literally translated as “under the glass,” a podstakannik is a handled metal holder for a glass of hot tea.
As you might imagine, Russians like their tea very hot. They also tend to prefer it very sweet.
Russian peasants have traditionally drunk tea from a small glass held between thumb on the rim, and index and middle fingers at the bottom. A small piece of sugar would be bitten off a larger chunk and held between the side teeth while drinking, allowing the hot tea to flow over the sugar. In this way the tea was sweetened at far less cost than adding sugar into the glass.
Balancing a hot glass in one’s fingers can get a little dicey for the less agile, so the privileged classes created metal holders. The glasses they held were also rather larger than the ones used by the peasantry (hey, they could afford more tea!). Sugar – as much as they liked – was stirred directly into the glass.
The podstakannik, whether crafted of base metal, brass, copper, pewter, silver, even gold, is usually enhanced with a carved (or chased) design. Some are embellished with coloured enamel, semi-precious stones, or – if you happen to be the tsar or tsarina – richly coloured jewels. The glass insert may be of plain or cut glass, or it might even be crystal.
Popular traditional chased designs for these holders feature Russian landmarks, nature themes, or mythical creatures. Images from the Soviet space program were common during the later USSR era.
Magnificent artisan-crafted podstakanniki can sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars. Fortunately, you can find an attractive piece for well under fifty dollars, including both holder and glass. The beauty and utility of podstakanniki have also inspired present-day artisans to create modern designs crafted of contemporary materials such as aluminum or titanium.
Podstakanniki are charming additions to any teacup collection, and are almost guaranteed to make you feel like royalty as you sip your tea.
See also: Tea Traditions — Russia
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