In my novel, We Shall See the Sky Sparkling, Lily is an actress working in London at the end of the 19th century, who travels to pre-revolutionary Russia during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II.
Read further below on Russian Tea and Tea Party Culture.
Tea is one of my favorite beverages, and when I first visited St. Petersburg I was delighted to find out that Russia has a very long standing tea-drinking tradition. I learnt that tea was first introduced to Russia in 1638 by a Mongolian ruler, who gifted Tsar Michael I a chest of tea. By the end of the 17th century, tea had become so popular that treatises were drawn up to establish regular imports from China via camel caravan in exchange for furs. These caravans travelled up to 18 months to reach Moscow through the Siberian Route, which later became known as the Tea Road. I also found out that one of my favorite teas, Russian Caravan, supposedly acquired its distinctive smoky flavor from the caravan's campfires along the journey.
I also came across a very important element of the Russian tea culture: The ubiquitous Russian tea brewing device, known as a samovar, became a true symbol of hospitality and comfort.
Tea in Russia, especially afternoon tea, has traditionally been enhanced with a variety of goodies like jam, syrup, lemon, cakes, cookies, candies, and other sweets. And tea is, of course, at the very center of another very Russian tradition: garden picnics.
One of my all time favorite descriptions of a picnic in Russian literature is in Ada of Ardor, by Vladimir Nabokov, in which the Veen family celebrates Ada’s twelfth birthday with a lavish outdoor picnic set in a forest glade in their country estate. The following foods are described as served at the party:
“Stacks of tender crustless sandwiches (perfect rectangles five inches by two), the tawny corpse of a turkey, black Russian bread, port of Gray Bead caviar, candied violets, little raspberry tarts, have a gallon of Goodson white port, another of ruby, watered claret in thermos flasks for the girls, and the cold sweet tea of happy childhoods—”
Other delicious foods that can easily find their way to Russian picnics and tea parties are borscht, dumplings, pancakes with sour cream, a variety of fruit preserves, beetroot and herring salads, cakes with honey and poppy seeds, together with the traditional doughnut-shaped bread roll, and kalatch, the traditional braided bread made for special occasions.
Outdoor tea parties are not necessarily restricted by climate conditions in Russia: Alongside picnics in beautiful spring and summer weather, there are also winter picnics, where drinking hot tea is even more appreciated.
Note: This blog was first published at LET THEM EAT BOOKS