Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Make Room for Russian Tea, Part 2

The major events in bringing tea to Russia discussed in the previous post were the evolution of the “Great Tea Road” and later, the building of the Trans-Siberian railway. These historical developments resulted in an important increase in the availability in tea at public occasions in Russia, and helped spread tea drinking to all the members of Russian society. The ballerina Tamara Karsavina even noted the welcome provision of tea on a cold day at a matinee performance by the students of the Maryinsky Theater School in Saint Petersburg in 1896. She says: “Huge samovars steamed outside the stage door… In the interval tea and refreshments were served in the foyers and the staff wore their gala red livery with the Imperial eagles.” Tea was served formally in the social ritual of afternoon tea, an adopted European custom. However, in Russia, sweeteners were never added to tea, but taken separately. These could be lumps of sugar, pieces of candied fruit, or preserves.

The most characteristic aspect of Russian tea culture is the samovar, literally “self-cooker”. This is a simple but highly effective piece of equipment that makes warm tea available throughout the day. The samovar is lovingly referenced in Russian literary works and often appears in paintings and historical photographs. It functions by heating a metal urn of water through a central tube heated by a charcoal or wood fire. A strong concentrate of the tea (“zavarka”) is kept warm by sitting on top of the metal urn, and is diluted as needed to make tea throughout the day. By the late eighteenth century, samovars were starting to be made in large numbers in the metalworking city of Tula, south of Moscow. Most samovars were made of brass, but some were crafted from silver or gold and were presented on special occasions as gifts to the court. The samovar was a purely Russian invention. While classical European teapots and cups were popular to serve tea in, the Imperial Russian Porcelain Factory (LFZ), founded in 1744 under the patronage of Empress Elizabetha Petrovna (r. 1741-62), is the longest continuously-running factory in Russia, and the only factories to continue working through the revolution and two world wars. They became famous for manufacturing elegant services of matching teapots, jugs, sugar bowls, cups, saucers and trays decorated in bright colors. Tea was drunk not only from porcelain cups but also from glasses set in decorative metal holders. This custom continues in Russia today.

The Russians have become such devoted tea drinkers that as a nation they are the third largest consumers of tea in the world (behind China and India). Per capita Russians are second only to China as the biggest consumers of tea. Russia’s thirst for tea today is satisfied by Georgian production (which has now developed into the seventh-largest tea producing region in the world) as well as imports from China, Taiwan, India, and Sri Lanka. Favorite imported blends are sometimes slightly smoked, or flavored with Citrus fruits and bergamot, and include romantic names such as Russian Blend, Russian Caravan, and Czar Alexander.

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