Tea became available in Russia in the 17th century, brought by the caravans of traders on camels who would make the cross-continent journey from China. This journey took almost an entire year to complete, resulting in tea being quite expensive and only available to the aristocratic class for many years. Everything changed in 1880 when the Siberian Railroad was opened, and the trip could now be done in just two short months. Tea became widely available, and was embraced by all social classes.
Around this same time, the samovar was introduced in Russia, and became the centerpiece of any Russian household, rich or poor. The samovar was a large decorative urn made from copper or silver, that could hold a large quantity of water. An inside chamber was heated with coals and kept the water hot and bubbling all day long, so that tea could be prepared on a moment’s notice. On top of the samovar, a small teapot rested and was kept warm, containing a very strongly brewed concentrate of tea called tscheinik. When one desired a cup of tea, they could immediately prepare it to their liking by pouring out a small amount of the tscheinik, and diluting it with hot water from a spigot on the samovar. This invention, of Chinese origin, soon came to be recognized as the symbol of Russian hospitality. If unexpected guests were to arrive in a Russian home, they could count on being served tea quickly thereafter. Even in the great expanse of Russian literature, from Tolstoy to Dostoyevsky, the samovar is consistently mentioned in scenes taking place in the Russian home, as a symbol of Russian hospitality and company.
Russian tastes in tea are quite unique compared to other countries. The concentrated tea found in the samovar’s teapot can be green, but is more often black tea from India or Sri Lanka. Russians will often use a blend of teas which has been smoked to varying degrees. Some believe this to be a taste that developed due to the Russian climate or local gastronomy, while others have the more romantic notion that this smoked tea is a reminder of the old caravan tea, which would become slightly smoked simply by the repeated exposure to campfires along the route. In fact, many tea companies have created smokey blends which are often called “Russian Caravan Tea.” The preference for smokey tea would seem an odd combination with sweets, but the traditional way of drinking tea in Russia is to sip the tea through a sugar cube in the mouth, or by stirring a spoon of homemade jam into the cup before drinking. However it is prepared by the individual, tea can be found in any household and is enjoyed throughout the day.
When tea was first introduced in England in the mid 1600’s, the consumption was limited by the high cost and also because of the segregation of tea being served in coffee houses that catered solely to men. Once tea became popular enough in the coffee houses, more specific tea houses began to be opened in London and elsewhere in the country. Here, men and women could both enjoy a cup of tea or buy some for home.
Afternoon tea, a tradition that is thought of being almost synonymous with the word “British,” did not become established until almost 200 years later. In those days, most people only ate two meals: a large breakfast late in the morning and a late dinner around 8 or 9 o’clock in the evening. Anna, Duchess of Bedford, can be credited for creating the tradition of afternoon tea. She would become hungry during the afternoon, in the long hours between breakfast and dinner. She began asking her servants to bring her some sweets and a cup of tea to ward away her hunger. Eventually she began sharing this custom with her friends, and afternoon tea soon became popular among the aristocratic class. The working class caught on quickly, especially as the afternoon meal was a good opportunity take a much needed break and spend time with friends. Later on in the 19th century, Queen Victoria’s love for afternoon tea was well known, as were her particular tastes for having a slice of lemon with her tea and her preference for certain cakes and strawberry jam. Afternoon tea also gave way to another favorite tradition: the creation of tea gardens. Tea gardens were quiet places, created specially for taking in afternoon tea, with beautiful flowers, herbs and quaint outdoor furniture. Today tea gardens are not as popular as they once were, but one can still stumble across many throughout the countryside.
In England today, the tradition of afternoon tea continues on in the home, in upscale hotels, in department stores and even in the small neighborhood cafes and tea rooms found in every town. Whether it is a short break for a cup of tea and a small cookie, or a 3 course event of cakes, scones with jam and Devonshire cream, sandwiches and other treats, afternoon tea will continue to be a true English tradition. And tea itself will have a lasting place in English culture. Besides afternoon tea, the English consume large quantities of tea throughout the day, from breakfast to dinner and the last cup of the night. This love for tea is not unique to the English alone, but is found in most citizens of the British Commonwealth, including all of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and South Africa.
France has a very similar history and affection for tea as England. Tea was introduced around the same time and was indulged in primarily by the aristocratic class, before eventually being taken up by the rest of the population. Tea was first introduced as a medicine, although French doctors were quick to denounce it as having any medical worth, even citing the amount of caffeine as a potential health threat. To this day many French families do not allow their children to drink tea, because of its caffeine content. And many adults even prefer naturally caffeine-free herbal tisanes like chamomile and verbena, or verveine.
However, true tea from the Camellia sinensis plant has taken a strong foothold, and many salons de thé can be found, not just in Paris, but in cities throughout the country. A salon de thé is a slightly more quiet and serene place for relaxation in the busy cities; certainly more so than the crowded cafes. The atmosphere in a French salon de thé is slightly more formal than the English tea room. The porcelain teapots are sophisticated and the place settings elegant, while attention to the highest quality of tea is of the utmost importance. The French will usually indulge in exquisite pastries, like tarts and petit fours with their tea, a tradition that has carried over to many afternoon teas served outside of the country.