Russian tea-drinking

Tea-drinking is an indispensable part of the life of the Russian people. Tea is not only a very popular daily beverage in Russia, but it is also remarkable for its special poetic atmosphere Tea-drinking is associated with a Russian hospitality, with a friendly company and relatives, with warm and serene feelings.

Tea was introduced to Russia in the early seventeenth century from China. It was brought to Muscovy in 1638 by the boyar son Vasily Starkov, who was sent with gifts to the Mongol Khans. The new drink was tested at the Court of Tsar Mikhail Feodorovich, it was favourably met and thus came into use. The first agreement for the delivery of tea from China was signed during the reign of Feodor Alexeyevich in 1679. Starting in the eighteenth century, Russia had an intense trade in Chinese tea through Mongolia and Siberia. Indian and later Ceylon tea began to be imported to Russia, similarly to West European countries, in the nineteenth century.

The spread of a tea-drinking custom in Russia was largely promoted by the introduction of special tea urns, samovars, in the eighteenth century. The samovar became an indispensable attribute of tea-making (unlike West European varieties, where they were used for heating a bouillon). Its growing popularity was also connected with the exploration of mineral riches in the Urals and the establishment of copper-melting production there. The first mention of the Russian samovar refers to 1746, and in the early nineteenth century tea-drinking from a samovar became a firmly established tradition in Russian society.

Towards the middle of the nineteenth century tea has gradually turned into a truly national beverage in Russia. Tea-drinking has entered the daily life of every layer of Russian society and has become an indispensable part of their everyday life and personal contacts. Samovars were produced in such a wide range of shapes and were so remarkable for their elegant decorations that these metal articles have become notable specimens of national handicraft.

As the Russian writer Mikhail Zagoskin vividly described,"... they were drinking tea everywhere. Tea was in demand with our merchants, the only luxury of our lower middle class, a festive, highest joy for all the sober raznochintsy, factory workers, and even peasants the Russian samovar could be seen puffing at every turn."

In middle-class urban and rich peasant households a special ritual of Russian tea-drinking was evolved. A boiling samovar, polished to glitter, was put on a special small table on an ornate tray, next to the dining table. Tea cups with saucers, a sugar-bowl with lumps of sugar, pincers for breaking sugar, pies, cakes and even fruits were served on the main table. A teapot with a sieve hanging from its spout was put on the top ring of the samovar. Tea pouring into cups was a sort of a ceremony usually devoted to the housewife or to her eldest daughter. It used to be a custom to sip tea from a saucer supporting it by all the five fingers. Tea was added into one's cup until a guest would put it upside down. In the homes of the intelligentsia and official aristocracy it was traditional to drink tea using ornate metal glass-holders. In these homes the bouillote? a vessel for boiling water with a spirit-lamp, to keep the water hot until the samovar would be prepared again, was an indispensable accompaniment. In Russian taverns, there was a custom to serve tea in "couples" a large tea-kettle with boiling water and a smaller teapot with tea. Towards the late nineteenth century, in addition to traditional tea, recipes of tea with herbs, berries, honey and milk began to be introduced.

Years have passed... The pace of busy present-day life have altered the choice of dishes and reduced the time allotted for a meal. But sometimes we are in a great need of a respite. And what can be better for a repose than Russian tea-drinking from a samovar!