RS Culture & customs Traditional Russian Tea party

Traditional Russian Tea party

‘Day faded; on the table, glowing,
the samovar of evening boiled,
and warmed the Chinese teapot; flowing
beneath it, vapour wreathed and coiled.
Already Olga's hand was gripping
the urn of perfumed tea, and tipping
into the cups its darkling stream -
meanwhile a hallboy handed cream’

Eugene Onegin by Alexandre Pushkin (1823-1831)
chapter 3, XXXVII
(Translation by Charles H. Johnston)

Even the tactful Japanese probably would smirk or at the very least express puzzlement if someone told them about a ‘Traditional Russian Tea party’. And yet, it is a well known fact that Russians cannot live without tea. And today, just like in the past, Russian families will get together and sit down at a table not to have lunch or dinner but to have tea. Even coffee that has been slowly but surely making inroads onto Russian tables still has not been able to replace tea. Russians will drink tea on any occasion and with no occasion whatsoever.

For the first time four pounds (65.5 kg) of tea were brought to Russia in 1638 by the Russian ambassador Starikov as a gift from the Mongol Khan for the Russian sovereign of Moscow Michael Fyodorovich. At first the tsar and the boyars were not particularly impressed with the astringent and bitter drink. When all the tea presented by the Mongolian Khan had been drunk and the Moscow court began to forget its taste, it was once again diplomats who reintroduced tea to Russia; the Russian ambassador Sapfary brought some tea from China. This time tea was already a known quantity in Moscow and in 1679 a contract was entered into with China under which the Chinese were to supply Russia with dried tea. After that, caravans carrying tea began regular journeys from the Great Wall of China to the walls of the Moscow Kremlin.

Boris Kustodiev ‘Merchant’s wife having Tea’, 1918

However, the new beverage took quite some time to grow on Russians, who at first viewed it with suspicion as they did everything that originated abroad. Plus Chinese tea was too expensive while Russian herbal teas, such as cranberry, currant, briar, and sweet lime were always easy to get. And it was only by the early 18th century that tea had been fully accepted in the Russian households and become a national drink.

And drinking tea was no longer simply a matter of quenching one’s thirst but rather it had evolved into a kind of social ceremony. It was over tea that people sorted out their family issues, struck business deals, arranged marriages; it would seem like no serious issue could be resolved without a cup of tea. Actors, writers, artists all had their favourite tea houses. Conversations over tea at Leo Tolstoy’s place in Yasnaya Polyana and Khamovniki became an integral part of the history of Russian culture. Many of the paintings by the Russian artist Boris Kustodiev depict people having tea. Scholars generally agree that it was thanks to tea parties thrown by Russian commoners that created the genre of the Russian romance.

And so for the past three hundred years tea has been drunk at every family celebration and every informal get-together of old friends. So what is a traditional Russian tea party anyway?

The Russian tea party has its own range of states and moods, its own atmosphere that suggests pleasure and a harmony of the body and spirit and in this respect having tea in Russia is similar to going to the bathhouse. Since times immemorial having tea in Russia has been viewed as an excuse to sit down and have a long and relaxed conversation to reconcile differences or perhaps sort out some business issues. The main element of the Russian tea party (apart from tea of course smile) is socialising! Lots of tea, treats and a good company these are the main ingredients of a Russian style tea party.

Konstantin Makovskiy ‘At Tea’, 1914

If you want to have tea the Russian way, you need at least 30 minutes to spare. You cannot just down a cup of tea and dash off. Nor can you remain silent at the table as is the custom in the Japanese or Chinese tea ceremony. Nor do Russians follow a formal ‘tea ceremony’ the way it is done in Britain. Keeping silent while having tea may be taken as an insult to the hosts. Guests are expected to feel completely at home at the tea table and drop all formalities.

In Russia tea was drunk (and is drunk smile) several times a day. Whether it is the residence of the Russian monarch, a provincial manor house or a craft person’s workshop, the day has always started with tea. Close associates of the Emperor Alexander I wrote in their memoirs that in spring and summer the emperor would always ‘have green tea with thick cream, toasted croutons and white bread’ at 7 o’clock in the morning and at 9 o’clock in the evening’.

In his book of essays Muscovites at Home, Visiting Friends and on the Street, the 19th century Moscow writer and journalist N. Polyakov notes that his characters have a tendency to tell time using tea. ‘For many Muscovites tea time replaces the normal way of referring to time, thus if you are told that something happened in the morning after or in the evening before (or after) tea you’ll be pretty certain about the exact time that the event took place. In other words having a time piece in Moscow is a superfluous luxury while tea is absolutely essential…’

An indispensible component of a Russian tea party is the samovar! Tula is regarded as the samovar capital of Russia (Russians even have a saying, which originated in a play by Anton Chekhov, ‘to go to Tula with your own samovar’ which means to do something ludicrous smile).

Samovars are tea poetry; they come in all sorts of different shapes. Many of them are true works of art. And then there are special heating pads used to cover the ceramic tea pot, these to come in all sorts of shapes and colours!

A samovar is always placed in the middle of the table. It commonly has curved shapes suggesting warmth and kindness. While water is boiling inside the samovar and smoke is coming off the top of it, its sides reflect the people around the table and nature, adding a surreal feel to the gathering. Samovars are usually heated up using charcoal and sometimes even fir cones. The slightly bitter aroma of the smoke relaxes and soothes those present. In addition to good looks and efficiency, samovars were always valued for their sound. When the water starts boiling a samovar would announce it with its own unique ‘song’ that would add to the cosiness and intimacy of the occasion. Usually large quantities of tea were brewed so it would be enough for a long unhurried conversation. One of the key functions of Russian tea is to help the guests get warm after coming in from the cold outside. And it goes without saying that there must be jam on the table. It’s a traditional Russian sweet delicacy, which must have whole berries and thick syrup.

Traditionally in Russia tea was drunk with sugar, sweets and food. Since a traditional tea party assumes that people will be spending at long time at the table, it is not that much different from a celebratory meal. This means that the guests must be kept full. At a traditional Russian tea party several types of snacks are served, the first one of which will be something substantial like cake, pie or pancakes with meat, cabbage, fish or egg. After a pause, sweet treats will be served, such as pastries, honey, various kinds of jam, chocolate, marshmallow or pancakes with sweet fillers. At the same time as sweets are brought out you should also serve fresh (in the summer) or canned (in the winter) vegetables and berries.

The order in which all these snacks are served is important; the guests must eat their full because when a person is full he/she will be more peaceful and sociable! smile

There is a story about how in 1802 prince Shakhovskoy met with Goethe in a hotel in Munich. Famous German poet invited the prince for tea. Having arrived and seeing that there was nothing but tea on the table the prince ordered sandwiches and some pastries without further ado. The two spent a most pleasant evening talking about German and Russian literature. To Shakhovskoy’s surprise, the next day he got a bill for the food stuffs he had ordered, which Goethe refused to pay, since he had only invited the prince for tea. smile

There is another tradition that foreigners often fail to understand; Russians drink tea from glasses that they put in special glass holders. This tradition dates back to the 17th and 18th century teahouses and it was only in the early 19th century that it was picked up by the commoners. Expensive glass holders were usually made from silver, the more commonplace glass holders were made primarily from alloys of nickel and silver or copper as well as other nickel alloys with silver or gold coating. The habit of drinking tea from glasses originated in tea houses; today it is an acquired taste, not many people will drink tea from glasses at home and yet it has still survived on trains. It is a special unique kind of pleasure to drink hot tea from a glass in a glass holder sitting in the car of a long distance train and looking out at the landscapes speeding past outside! smile

Having a tea set only used for special occasions when you’re having guests over can also be regarded as a tradition. Russian china can be found in many museums around the world. The fame of Popov and Kuznetsov porcelain can rival that of Faberge.

Thus, a Russian tea party is part of the Russian hospitality! It is a way to relax in the company of friends and family! No matter what time of day or night you visit a Russian home you can count on getting a cup of tea filled to the brim as a sign of hospitality.