Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Russian Caravan

"Twenty kilometers to Leningrad!" barked the conductor, smacking me on the side. I rubbed the sore spot, lifted my head from the pillow, and looked down. He was setting a tray of tea glasses, each encased in a fanciful metalwork holder, on the little fold-out table between our berths. A delectable fragrance was rising.

"Annushka, u nas goryachii chai!" said my Russian teacher. Anna dear, we have hot tea. 

The night train from Moscow to Leningrad (or St. Petersburg) was, of course, the scene of another Anna's awakening. Count Vronsky declared his passion for Anna Karenina when she disembarked for a bit of fresh air along the way. When Anna got to Petersburg, all she could think about was how large her husband's ears seemed to have grown since she saw him last. Perhaps if the conductor had smacked her one as the train approached the city, things might have turned out differently.

Of such incongruities is Russian life made. Russian culture seems to this outsider always to be teetering between barbarism and warm hospitality. Brutally repressive tsars also stood in their palaces for hours at Eastertime, kissing each guest---the reception lines were thousands long---three times. The cruelty of love is a literary cliche, but Russian writers also have cause to speak of the love of cruelty. When they juxtapose historical drama with private drama, the results are, of course, worthy of cable television.

Characters in Russian literature are always gathering for tea---not the abomination falsely bandied about in 1960's cookbooks as "Russian Tea," but real, freshly brewed black tea, often from a samovar. A samovar (the word means "self-boiler") is such a potent symbol of Russian hospitality that even though it is perfectly possible to make great tea without one, people cherish them, collect them, and sometimes even buy them new. That's what Diner #1 did for me one fabulous birthday. My samovar, a Beem (of German manufacture), is a great way to serve tea to a crowd: You make an extremely strong brew called "zavarka" in the top pot and dilute it with hot water to taste from the spigot.

Copyright (c) 2016 Anna Bendiksen

(From time to time I've considered making up stories about a great-great-grandmother bringing this only possession, her cherished samovar, over on the boat, but the thick electric cord betrays me.)

Even in my days as a student in Moscow, tea was valued and served with great ceremony (though not often with lemon slices, since these were a rare luxury, and sugar was rationed). I often brought tins of Twinings from the hard-currency store as presents for my Russian friends. My favorites were Blackcurrant and Russian Caravan. Twinings Blackcurrant loose-leaf, in a distinctive tin of shocking magenta, was discontinued years ago. The Blackcurrant flavor is still available in tea bags through Twinings, and other companies sell a loose-leaf blackcurrant, but these alternatives don't do it for me.

Twinings Russian Caravan has also been discontinued, but blending Keemun with a bit of Lapsang Souchong does the trick. My favorite source is Adagio Tea. There is nothing like it to brighten the gloom of late winter.

How to Make Great Russian-Style Tea without a Samovar

You will need a kettle to boil water and a teapot as well as a strainer. Don't even think about heating your water in the microwave for this; you cannot keep an eye on it, which is important.

Fill the kettle with fresh, cold water and put it on to boil. When the water is very hot but not boiling, fill the teapot with it; this warms the pot. When the kettle water is almost at a boil, dump out the water in the teapot. Add to the teapot one generous spoonful of loose-leaf black tea per guest plus one for the pot.

When the water boils, bring the teapot to it and fill it. The tea will taste better if the water has not boiled for very long at this point. Some commentators who were not paying attention in chemistry class warn against "boiling out all the oxygen," but I won't. Stir the tea, cover, and allow to steep for three to five minutes. Bring it to the table, keeping the kettle hot on the stove.

The first cup is never any good, so reserve it for your garden. The second, third, and beyond, poured through the strainer into cups, are guaranteed to cure toska, the Russian word for melancholic longing. If your teatime becomes lengthy and the tea strong, do as you would with samovar tea: add a bit of the tea to a cup, then dilute it with hot water from the kettle. Offer sugar, slices of lemon, and milk. In our family, if anyone asks for the last two together, he risks being teased, "Surely you're joking, Mr. Bendiksen!"

Copyright (c) 2016 Anna Bendiksen