Hallmarks of a Russian novel: (1) a maddening fluidity of names (I mean, really, how many nicknames does one person need?), and (2) the samovar.
Because when tea came into Russia, not only did the Russians embrace this new beverage, but they made it completely their own. Today, the samovar continues to evoke Russian culture and hearty, smoke-tinged tea, hauled thousands of miles by caravan.
But what exactly is this contraption, and why did the Russians end up using it?
After all, the Chinese were using stoneware teapots, and the Europeans were importing both stoneware and porcelain pots from China (see earlier post on early export ware from China).
In the first decades of trade, Chinese teaware did accompany the tea. But those caravans were traveling through Mongolia, where metal kettles were used, so in the 1770s the Russians used the Mongolian design to develop the samovar: sam (self) + varit (to boil), or self-boiler (Nordbye 2013). Or, according to another source, they derived the samovar from Tibetan hot pots (Delaine 2015).
Either way, they quickly caught on.
The Lisitsyn brothers—who lived in Tula, renown for its metalwork—made their first copper samovar in 1778. Less than a century later, Tula was producing 120,000 samovars annually (Master Russian), and by 1900, 630,000. Made of various metals (including copper, iron, brass, nickel, silver, even gold) or porcelain, samovars combined functionality and prestige.
So how does this really-scary-looking thing work?
Fuel (such as charcoal or wood chips) was stuffed into the pipe that runs through the middle of the samovar. As the fuel burned, it heated the water held in the urn-shaped portion of the samovar.
Meanwhile, tea concentrate, zavarka, was made in a small teapot, which was generally set atop the samovar so that it stayed warm.
To make a cup of tea, a small amount of concentrate was poured into a teacup and diluted with hot water from the samovar (hence the faucet, as seen in the drawing). Sometimes more than one concentrate was made, using different teas. The various concentrates were then combined in the cup and diluted with water.
And the tea itself?
The tea used for the concentrate must be a blend that was very strong yet didn’t become bitter when kept hot for long periods of time. Blends today are often made from black loose leaf tea from India and/or China, and often are slightly smoky, reminiscent of caravan campfires. (See my previous posts on when tea first arrived in Russia and about that first imported tea.)
Traditionally the tea was served black but the drinkers would hold a sugar cube in their teeth as they sipped their tea (Nordbye 2013). Tea nowadays may be sweetened with honey or jam as well.
Now if you don’t have a samovar at home, no worries. You can simply brew strong, hearty Russian Caravan or Russian Samovar loose leaf tea in your own cup or pot, perhaps adding a dab of your favorite jam. Ideally accompanied by your favorite Russian novel.
–Delaine, L. “Tea time in Russia,” Russian Life, russianlife.com/blog/tea-time-in-russia, accessed October 2015.
–Master Russian. “Russian samovars,” masterrussian.com/russianculture/samovars.htm, accessed July 2017.
–Nordbye, N. “The great Siberian tea road,” Russian Life May/June 2013.