Tea is a huge part of Russian culture. Making its first appearance several centuries ago, this hot drink has conquered the heart of Russians, becoming an integral part of everyday life. Nowadays, there are hundreds of kinds of tea, as well as drinking habits, but we’re most interested in looking at the traditional aspects. Here are a few elements of the time-honoured Russian tea ceremony.
As with Asian tea traditions and the famous English five o’clock tea time, the Russian tea ceremony demands quite a bit of time to fully experience. Historically, having a cup of tea meant much more than just that: at the tea table, people were having important conversations. Tea houses often hosted business deals and the making of new partnerships. Even the common ‘home’ tea ceremony would last around three hours. So, make sure you have some time on your hands before planning a Russian tea ceremony.
The samovar or Russian tea pot, which is now one of the non-official symbols of Russia, originally came to the country from western Europe, specifically with Peter the Great on a return trip from Holland. Russian craftsmen used the Holland tea pot as a base, improved the design and started producing their own. Up until now, the samovar pots from the Tula factory (which was the first factory to produce 100 percent Russian samovars) are known to be the best ones.
The samovar is by far not the only element used during Russian tea ceremonies. Back in earlier times, when the tea was still an element of a luxurious lifestyle, people adopted another form of brewing tea that required having another smaller tea pot to brew tea leaves. The guests then poured an amount of this tea brew in their cup and added a little hot water. This way of brewing also helped to avoid the tea from being too strong or too light.
The warming doll was used to keep the tea hot; it was placed on top of the brewing pot, sometimes totally covering it, to preserve the temperature.
The first glass cup was produced in Russia in the seventeenth century, and soon after, the cup holder (podstakannik) was invented. As a tool created to save your fingers while holding a hot drink in a glass cup, the podstakannik was first made from wood and later from metal. It became a fashionable accessory, and men of high society preferred drinking the tea this way only.
In soviet times, the materials used were cheaper and ‘tea in podstakannik’ became a mass market option. Nowadays, we still have the opportunity to drink the tea like this; all you have to do is take a train to any destination within the country and ask for a tea at a local cafe or restaurant.
Always remember that in a Russian tea ceremony, it’s not only about tea. This is also demonstrated through the multitude of other things offered on the menu like sweets, chocolates, honeys, jams, baked goods, pirogi, cakes and more. Remember, if you are invited for a tea to someone’s home, make sure to bring something sweet with you; it doesn’t matter if it is a peace of chocolate or a couple of croissants, the host will note the nice gesture.
Even though tea is usually drunk as is, sometimes it is appropriate to add alcohol to it. Some of the more popular Russian alcoholic ‘toppings’ are cognac, homemade liquors and even rum.
The fashion for tea came to Europe together with the fashion for porcelain. The local masters didn’t yet know the secret of porcelain production, so only aristocrats and royal family members could afford it. Although, everything changed in the eighteenth century when English and German masters learned how to produce the porcelain. Russian craftsmen quickly joined this new popular industry, which resulted in the foundation of the famous Imperial Porcelain Factory known for its thin, almost transparent, porcelain cups and classic designs.