I have given up finding the perfect cup of coffee in Russia. Such a thing just does not exist in a culture so based on drinking tea. A wikipedia article I researched reports that 82% of Russians drink tea on a daily basis.
Sure they have coffee available for the token foreigner who shows up and prefers it, but it is always an after-thought, a concession, appealing only in its exotic qualities. Tea is the native drink for Russians. Has been for over 300 years, and it is always available in large doses, the larger the better.
The Japanese have a saying for an uncultured person that he/she “has no tea in them.” This might as well be a Russian saying considering how closely daily life is bound up with having tea. Of course the Russians are not alone in their obsession, but they have their own particular way of appropriating it. By all accounts, tea drinking came from the Far East, China, Japan, Mongolia, etc. where to this day it is not only drunk informally but attached to elaborate ritual. It was then imported to the West via Marco Polo and other explorers and landed solidly in such cultures as merry old England where to this day “tea time” at around 4pm daily brings commerce to a halt and people to the table.
But Russia which straddles East & West has kept both formal and informal ways of drinking tea. It is without question the national beverage, more prevalent than the infamous vodka for which Russia always gets a bad reputation. This is because chai (Russian for “tea”) can be drunk to celebrate any occasion during any time of the year.
For instance, I am amazed now that we are in Sochi where daily summer temperatures push 90 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity is well above 60%, and we still drink hot tea after almost every meal. There is a cooler summer drink called kvas which deserves its own post, but it is far from displacing its much hotter cousin for reasons that continue to escape me.
On the more formal side of things, there is some tradition of the chainik dome “Tea House” whose exact origins and history initially escaped my web research. They have a living history replica of it in Sochi which we like to visit in the mountains. There they make tea from a real Russian samovar the old-fashioned way, heating the water with an internal fire instead of electricity. Then the tea (choice of green or black) is served as it is in almost every Russian household: accompanied with various jams, nuts, chocolates, cookies, and all sorts and sundries of sweets. There is also traditionally some kind of after-dinner entertainment: singing, dancing, etc.
There is so much I could say about tea in Russia, but the lateness of this particular post when it was originally written and then finally typed prevents me from further elaboration. Suffice it to say that it was brought to you late at night after I drank too much freeze-dried coffee at a local KFC (that’s right, KFC here serves coffee, just like all the other imported American establishments). It’s a habit we Americans have had ever since the Boston Tea Party… Maybe we missed something in pouring all that British tea into the Boston harbor…