Russia discovered tea in 1618 after the Emperor of China offered a gift of it to Czar Alexis. The habit took little by little. In 1689, China signed a treaty with Peter the Great according the right to trade to the Russians. Many caravans, some over 300 camels long, traded furs for tea by taking the old trail linking Mongolia with China. Czarina Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, organized her own caravan to brave the 15 000-kilometre trek, a journey lasting over a year and a half.
In Russia, as elsewhere in the world, the taste for tea spread in a specific manner: from the upper to the lower classes; from the cities to the countryside; and from women to men, who themselves preferred alcoholic drinks, in this case vodka.
What is known as Russian tea is really a blend of Chinese teas imported into Russia. Starting in 1893 Russia, and more particularly Georgia, did produce tea, but only a negligible quantity and of medium quality. This was reserved for local consumption.
Tea is very important in Russian life, where the word for "tip" literally means "for tea." Like China, Russia has many tea houses, called chai-naya.
Tea Russian Style
One cannot imagine Russian tea without the samovar, adopted in the 17th century and inspired by Mongol kettles used since the 13th century. A samovar consists of a four-footed copper or brass boiler, a tap, and a charcoal burner that conducts the heat. At the top of the apparatus where the chimney is, there is a round teapot containing highly concentrated tea extract. In summer the samovar is placed on a table in the garden; in the winter, inside, with a long pipe for the smoke to escape directly into the chimney of the house.
Traditionally, Russians have only one big meal, in the middle of the day, between 3 o'clock and 6 o'clock in the afternoon. They drink tea, on the other hand, all day long, and the samovar, serving tea at any time, becomes very important. All one needs to do to get a good cup of tea is to pour a quarter cup of tea concentrate and three quarters of a cup of boiling water from the samovar ...
Tea is drunk from glasses with silver or pewter handles. The usual procedure is to first take a spoonful of jam or a lump of sugar in the mouth, then to take a mouthful of hot tea, to which may have been added a slice of lemon. Cakes or sweets may also be served.
Tea is everywhere in Russia, including of course, in Russian literature:
Indeed the two women did have the cosy chat promised by Princess Tverskoy, while they were having tea, served them on a pedestal table, in the small, airy salon ...
... Without looking at her friend, she carefully poured the perfumed tea into the transparent glasses. After holding out a glass to Anna, she lit a cigarette ...
The story is told that Honoré de Balzac had a small quantity of extraordinary tea that he saved for his very best friends. The tea was a fine imperial plucking offered by the Emporer of China to the Czar. A Russian minister reserved a part of the gift to offer his friend, the writer. It was also said that the caravan that carried this marvel to Russia was attacked and its members killed. The legend adds that any who dared taste this tea might become blind. Balzac's greatest friend, Laurent-Jan, never drank the tea without declaring: "Once again I risk losing an eye - but it is worth it!"
©1996: Centre d'histoire de Montréal
Picture source: Centre d'histoire de Montréal