The Russian traditions will always be remembered for their love for tea. Tea has always been a part of the culture and tradition of Russia and this is what makes it an important beverage of this nation till date. In fact, 82% of the Russians still consume tea every day and it is highly unlikely that are going to give up their love for their favorite beverage at any time. So what has made tea so popular in Russia? Does tea grow here or was it a classic import that became a part and parcel of the Russian people’s lives? Below, we will have a look at the history of Russian tea and its tea traditions.
The history of tea in Russia:
As with any other tradition, there are many different legends associated with Russia and its tea culture. There are many stories that relate to the Romanov dynasty and Tsar Nicholas and how tea was introduced in Russia. It is a commonly known fact that Russia’s first contact with tea happened in the middle of the 1600s. At that time, Tsar Aleksey Milkaylovich was gifted with several chests of tea by a Chinese ambassador travelling to Moscow. The Chinese had been using tea for a fairy long time now. Russia and China were both trying to establish trade relations with each other at this time and as soon as tea was introduced to the Russians, it soon became one of the most popular Chinese imports to Russia.
Tsar Ivan IV influence:
It was in 1558 when Tsar Ivan IV decided to provide Stroganov, a merchant family with the possession of Siberia. However, they had to be obliged to colonize this huge deserted land. The free steppe were then used by the Cossacks to form communities in this region. The Cossacks were protecting the frontier lands for the Tsar at that time. They had spread significantly after establishing their communities in this area. In 1581, they had already reached the River Irtysh. By the time it was 1610, they had reached Yenisey as well. Dehsnev, a Russian explorer had gone way ahead than others, reaching the Pacific Ocean in 1645.
Chinese tea trade disputes with Russia:
There were some border disputes between China and Russia because both signed the 1689 Treat of Nerchinsk. As a result of this treaty, a common boundary was defined between the two so that trade could easily and safely carry on tea was imported to Russia. However, the 11,000 mile long trade route was completely barren and had a mountainous terrain because of which tea took more than 16 months to reach Moscow. The tea prices had inflated to such a huge extent that it once remained only a luxury item in the entire Russian region.
Imperial Russia embraces tea:
There are many more stories of Imperial Russia being introduced to tea. It is suggested than in 1638, Tsar Michael was donated about four poods of tea leaves from the Mongolian rules of that time. Vassili Starkov and Stepan Neverov were sent to the Mongol Khan who had been rather disappointed with Moscow’s disregard to some recent requests that were made by China. He gifted then about 250 pounds of tea. All this happened in 1636 when the two were appointed as ambassadors to China. The Mongol King Altyn Khan first met with a profuse rejection from Starkov who suggested that these dead leaves had practically no use in Russia. However, Khan insisted that the leaves be carried to the Tsar anyway. It was in Starkov’s accounts that we find the first ever references to tea in the Russian history.
The legend says that once Tsar Aleksey Milkaylovich had a nasty stomach ache which was treated by the court physician with some tea. After this, in 1679, Russia started trading fur with Chinese tea and Alexis I later received several chests of filled with tea as a gift from China. Each convoy of tea that came from China has at least 200 to 300 camels carrying tea to Moscow. Only 10 years later, in 1689. Russia got a formal sovereignty over Siberia and the world then witnessed the creation of one of the most popular trade routes in the world, i.e. the Tea Road.
Russian tea culture and tea room:
An article in Soviet Life in 1971 suggested that tea had become a household item in Russia and people were consuming tea every day, at least twice. However, some historians argue that the tea culture is comparatively newer than what people think it is.
Tea drinking became an everyday ritual in Russia and that was precisely because the wealthiest of the Russians used to carry out their tea drinking ceremonies here. They had elaborate tea room cultures where they would gather for a great afternoon tea which would be enjoyed with jam, honey and even the popular Russian tea cakes or tea cookies.
Later, tea became a part of the end of most meals where it was served along with beverages. So this culture was probably more than a century old as suggested by Soviet Life but it was not really the story of the entire Russian land.
Tea in modern culture:
It was only in the last 90s that tea was adopted in the everyday social life in Russia. However, the spread was so quick that nobody can even guess if Tea is not an entirely Russian thing.
The tea room in Russia used to be one of the most important parts of Russian culture as these were the spaces where tea was served and enjoyed. Most of the times, tea was an elaborate ceremony rather than a simple brew to be enjoyed by everyone.
To date, you will find many tea room styled spaces which have been designed specially to host the love for tea. Here, you need to spend anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour enjoying green tea or the classic dark Russian brew with tea cookies and more.
The tradition has gone as far as Ukraine and Eastern Europe and is now being acknowledged in many parts of the UK and USA as well. The Russian tea tradition is quite a great ceremony. While the Chinese and Japanese focus more on the spiritual side of tea, the Russians focus more on celebrations.
There were times when the tea room used to be a space to entertain people, have a heart to heart talk, arrange marriages and even make business deals. So there is a lot of pomp as well as purpose that goes into the Russian tea traditions.
In order to enjoy typical Russian tea in a tea room, you should be ready to drink at least two or even three flavors of tea at one time. Three different flavors are mixed in three different pots and then blended together before water is finally added to the mixture.
The samovar is the most popular vessel in the Russian tea rooms. The three teapots are usually placed on top of one another. The first pot usually has herbal green tea or some mint tea, followed by dark tea in the next pot and hot water in the last pot. The old traditional tea room could even be seen with silver samovars which have been an integral part of the Russian tea ceremonies.
There is a lot of variety in the size of the samovar, even though the shape remains largely the same. There are large samovars that can hold 30 liters of water at one time and the smaller samovars that hold merely 3 liters of water. Tula is known to be the home of samovars of most of these pots are manufactured here. They hold the record for the largest ever samovar which could hold 250 liters of water at one time.
At first, the samovars used to resemble the English tea urns. However, most of them now resemble Tibetan tea pots. They could be made of almost any metal ranging from silver to bronze and copper to iron. They are not just teapots but also a piece of art in Russia. The lady of the house is supposed to serve the tea to all the guests as well as the members of the family.
The samovar does not boil the water over a stove. It comes with a tube that holds wood or charcoal. The heat from the charcoal helps in heating the water in the pot. Most old samovars come with polished metal only. However, newer designs now also have many striking paintings. It is these tea room traditions and cultural associations with tea that makes them such an amazing thing to witness or participate in.
There is nothing common or ordinary about the way that tea is served in Russia. So why would there be anything common about the way tea is prepared in Russia. As we already know, samovars used a distinctive charcoal burnt style for boiling their water.
Now, we will see how the Russian tea room comes ablaze with the amazing Russian tea recipe. You might already know that Russians like their tea dark and strong. However, they don’t put the leaves in the pot, seep it and drink it right then.
The smallest pot of the samovar holds the key here. This pot holds the zavarka which the concentrated brew made by boiling a considerable amount of loose tea leaves in a small quantity of boiling water. The leaves can be brewed for as less as 5 minutes, like the typical English tea. However, zavarka can keep on boiling all through the day and can even be used on the next day for breakfast as it brews continuously.
Whenever tea is to be served to someone, a very small quantity of zavarka is poured into the cup ad then a good amount of boiling water is added in that cup to dilute the taste as per the preferences of the host or the guest.
You must never try to experiment like this with the typical English tea as it would become bitter within minutes of boiling like this. For this preparation, only dark loose tea that is produced in India is used. This tea can be blended with some herbal green tea or some fruited tea or the Chinese black tea in order to perfect a brew that does not get bitter anyhow.
The most favorite of all these blends is the Russian Caravan which is made by utilizing many Indian black teas that present a beautifully and almost unforgettable smoky flavor in the tea.
You must remember that tea, as per the Russian tea tradition, is not just a beverage but a dessert as well which is served with a number of sweets and mostly after meals. You should be savoring a spoonful of your favorite jam with the tea or can go with some really fine chocolates as well. There is no tea time in Russia.
Enjoy your tea anytime and every time you feel like. In Russia, tea symbolizes respect and hospitality as well as warmth and depth of relations. It is an insult not to offer tea to the guests and even refusing to take tea when offered is considered an insult.
Russian tea can never be enjoyed without some Great Russian tea cakes and Russian tea cookies. They can be bought from the store but are always great when prepared at home. You should also be trying these tea cakes and tea cookies at home. Their preparation is not too difficult and you will certainly be loving them once they have been baked.
Here are some of the most amazing resources for finding recipes to Russian tea cakes and tea cookies that you will keep savoring throughout the day.
We hope that you have a great time in enjoying the special Russian tea, its amazing preparation methods and the social warmth, hospitality and the rich history that surrounds this wonderful beverage.
If you are a tea enthusiast, you need to enjoy tea in a Russian Samovar now. However, if you haven’t developed a taste for tea yet, there would be no better place to start than Russia.