Tea Cultures And Ceremonies : The Russian Tea Ceremony
" Day faded; on the table, glowing,
the samovar of evening boiled,
and warmed the Chinese teapot; flowing
beneath it, vapour wreathed and coiled.
Already Olga's hand was gripping
the urn of perfumed tea, and tipping
into the cups its darkling stream -
meanwhile a hallboy handed cream."
Yevgeny Onegin by Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (1823-1831)
(Translation by Charles H. Johnston)
We continue our journey of exploring tea cultures around this world. This time, we travel to Russia and look at the how tea has become central to and part of everyday life in Russia. Indeed, tea would certainly vie with vodka to be considered as the national beverage of Russia!
(The Merchant's Wife. Boris Kustodiev, 1918)
Tea Arrives in Russia
It was in 1638 when ambassadors of the Russian Tsar returned from Mongolia with many diplomatic gifts from the ruler of Mongolia. Among the gifts were 200 packets of tea. The Tsar was not too impressed by the rough, blackish leaves that made a bitter tasting brew. And yet, it is from this unimpressive beginning that tea was to become the de facto national beverage in Russia!
In the beginning, tea drinking was limited to the aristocracy, the upper-class and the elite in Russia, as it was with tea in Europe and Britain during its early days. Tea was imported from China, available only in limited quantity, and hence, prohibitively expensive for the common people. However, by the turn of the eighteenth century, tea drinking permeated from the upper echelons of the society and was now increasingly becoming a part of family meals across Russia.
By the mid-nineteenth century, tea drinking was mentioned in the literary works of famous Russian writers and poets - from Pushkin to Dostoevsky and from Tolstoy to Chekhov. By the end of the nineteenth century, tea drinking had become more widespread throughout Russia, popular across classes and social strata. And it was around this time that the distinctive Russian tea culture started forming around Chaipiti (tea-drinking) and Chainichat (passing time over tea).
And at the centre of Chaipiti and Chainichat was the Russian Samovar.
(Russian Samovar - Ketan Desai, Personal Collection)
From the imperial tsars to the ordinary farmers, tea drinking cannot even be imagined without the Samovar. Indeed, the hissing Samovar is to the Russians what the whistling kettle is to the English.
Samovar is a metal urn made of out of cast iron or brass that is used for boiling water. Legend has it that the Samovar was first brought to Russia in the mid-18th century by Peter The Great. It was in the Siberian town of Tula that the first factories manufacturing the modern Russian Samovars were started. Today, Samovars made in Tula using traditional techniques and gloriously hand-painted are prized and collected for their cultural and artistic value, and Tula is considered to be the Samovar capital of Russia.
The Russian Tea Ceremony
(Family portrait in Russia with the samovar ready for tea. T. Myagkov, 1844 )
The Russian tea ceremony is much less formal than the Japanese tea ceremony. It is often a time for families and friends to gather over a cup of tea for Chainichat. The conversations and light and easy, the setting is casual and spontaneous. And yet, there is a certain way that is common across all Russian tea ceremonies :
The Samovar is placed at the centre of the table. Without a doubt, the Samovar has to be the centre of attention of the tea ceremony. The complete set of the Samovar consists of the main Samovar, a smaller tea-pot for brewing the loose-tea leaves (never tea-bags) and a sugar bowl. All these are set on a tray that competes the Samovar set.
Because the Chainichat is expected to last a long time, a lot of tea is brewed. The loose tea leaves are put inside the tea-pot. The Samovar is filled with water. Today, the modern Samovar has electrical heaters to boil the water. The water is put to boil and guests indulge in Chainichat as the Samovar heats up and the water starts boiling.
Soon, the Samovar starts hissing, or as they say in Russia - starts singing! Each Samovar has its own unique song. The tea-pot is then brought near the Samovar and the tap at the bottom of the Samovar is opened to let the hot water fill the tea-pot. In about five minutes, the tea-pot starts giving off wafts of sweet aroma, a sign that Zavarka - the strong brew is ready.
Once the Zavarka is ready, the host pour it in small amounts into cups of each of the guests. The guests then go to the Samovar and dilute the Zavarka with hot water, depending on how strong they want their tea. After the first round of Zavarka is served to all guests, the tea-pot is placed on top of the Samovar to keep the Zavarka hot.
Stakan s Podstakanni Kom (Glass with Metal Holder)
Usually, tea cups used in Russia for Chainichat is Stakan c Podstakanni Kom (glass with metal holder). The strong Zavarka poured in glass with metal holder, and guests add hot water from the Samovar to dilute their tea to taste. Drinking tea from glass with metal holder is a uniquely Russian tradition that dates back to the 17th and 18th century teahouses, where tea was served in glasses with metal holders. By the 19th century, glass with metal holders became popular in homes. Expensive glass with metal holders made of silver became a symbol of affluence, while more ordinary middle-class families served tea in glasses with metal holders made of alloys of nickel and silver.
Jam with Syrup and Whole Berries
The traditional Russian tea-drinking can never be complete without jam with syrup and whole berries. One can either take a dollop of syrup and a whole berry and dunk it in the tea to make it sweet, or take a spoonful of the syrupy berry jam and gulp it down with sips of bitter tea. Another tradition is to hold a cube of sugar between teeth and sip the hot tea. This would both sweeten the tea and melt the sugar cube.
Besides jam with syrup and whole berries, the Russian tea ceremony always involves a lot of food - sweets, chocolates, honeys, jams, pirogi and cakes. The savouries include meat, eggs, fish, pies and cabbage. It is important that guests eat their full because the Russians believe that only when a person is content and full is he peaceful!
A typical Russian tea ceremony will last for a few hours. The guest will have multiple rounds of tea and that is why a lot Zavarka is brewed. As the atmosphere gets more informal, it is not unusual for the guests to walk to the Samovar and help themselves re-fill their glass with Zavarka and dilute it with hot water from the Samovar.
Today, Chaipiti and Chainichat are as popular as ever in Russia. Whether you have gone for a formal meeting or have been invited to a meal with the family, there will always be the warm and friendly Russian tea-drinking that truly reflects the warmth and friendliness of the Russian people. There is something special and unique about the Russian tea ceremony that breaks down the wall of formality and stiffness and creates bonds of life-long trust and friendship.
As Pushkin says, “ecstasy is a glass full of tea and a piece of sugar in the mouth.”
About the Author :
ketan desai | chief educator | firstname.lastname@example.org
Ketan Desai is the Chief Educator at VAHDAM Teas. After a brief stint with the family tea business, Ketan went on to work with some of the top tea planters, tasters, blenders and marketers across India, Sri Lanka, Russia and the CIS countries, the UK, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Africa.
A seasoned tea-taster and blender, and a passionate raconteur, Ketan conducts tea workshops and events, regaling participants with amusing stories while explaining the finer nuances of tea during live tasting sessions.
At VAHDAM Teas, Ketan spearheads tea, content and community initiatives. He leads TEAch Me, VAHDAM’s social initiative focused on education of children at tea estates.
Ketan's favourite tea is Darjeeling First Flush, which he prefers to have without milk or sugar. He can be contacted at @ketdes on twitter, @teatotaller on instagram or at email@example.com.