Wednesday January 24, 2018 | 3 comments
I was just visiting Russia, to Moscow, Murmansk, and St. Petersburg. I’ve covered it so extensively that anyone following me on Instagram or Facebook might have become bored with those pictures. I also wrote a summary blog post about the travel, and a review of two Georgian black teas. So I’ll just add a short version here, a little about tea in Russian culture. Skipping the history will make that scope more practical, mostly only touching on what I experienced.
We did have tea made in a samovar there once, the traditional brewing device, at a husky sled racing camp. The idea is to use that device to brew black tea quite strong, sometimes mixed with herbs, and then to dilute that infusion to taste with water. In online discussion prior to the trip, some people said adding jam to black tea isn’t uncommon but that didn’t come up.
Russia does produce tea but not much of it; it’s too cold in most places there. Hearsay accounts claim down-turn in demand limited what had been produced in former parts of the USSR that had supplied it internally (eg. within Russia and in Georgia).
The modern form of most conventional tea consumed seems to be Ceylon, per what’s on grocery store shelves, roughly as often presented as loose tea as it is tea bags. Online group discussions filled in my exposure to tea preferences and habits in Russia, but as with what I saw in two weeks there that made for limited input. Chinese tea seems to be the basis for another inherited tradition that is a modern trend. It’s likely a theme that’s been around for a long time but interest is surging in popularity now, just on a limited scale, compared to the broader awareness and higher sales volume of that Ceylon.
I found good tea in Russia, in spite of not having much time to spend on the search. Two shops in Moscow sold an impressive range, in two product line presentations that would be familiar to Western tea enthusiasts. One shop (Perlov) seemed to be selling one or two versions per standard type out of small versions of large jars, along with herbs (tisanes) and commercially packaged teas. Another chain of stores, Moychay, offered a broader range of better Chinese teas that would be typical of more diversified specialty shops. I bought an in-house commissioned Nan Nuo sheng cake that I really like from them. Both focused more on Chinese teas, it seemed, but Taiwanese, Japanese, and some other origin teas were available. Indian teas didn’t seem as common as I would have expected. I didn’t run across anything like a family based traditional shop, but of course I didn’t experience most of what was there for vending options.
I attended a tasting held by the Russian makers of Laos Tea there, or at least one of them, invited by another associate of theirs through an Instagram connection (Daria). I’ll review two samples they passed on later, so for now I’ll just add that their teas are produced in Laos, as the name implies. I had heard of that producer a few times over the years but never tried teas from them, until on that trip.
Russians are into tea, I just didn’t explore too far due to conflicting vacation demands. One café had one of the best selections of loose teas I’ve ever seen, but we only visited there for a late dinner on New Year’s Eve. I rushed in and out of a random St. Petersburg tea shop that might have been an incredible resource, and walked past others, with lots more “starred” on Google Maps ahead of time that I didn’t make it to. Subtract out shop purchases at two Moychay branches and I barely found any tea, although the Perlov shop had plenty. Early in the trip when I visited those places I was hoping to find Russian tea, or at least more local versions (like Georgian), so I only bought a Russian green tea and Ivan chai/willow herb at Perlov.
Really the most interesting story about Russia isn’t about tea, it’s about Russians, and the range of things available to experience there. The Northern Lights in that Arctic city (Murmansk) were amazing, and seeing the tundra and being pulled on a sleigh by reindeer were really memorable. In Moscow I saw Lenin, literally, and Red Square, and a wonderful space museum that was on par with the Air and Space Museum in the Smithsonian. The subway system (metro) in both cities was just as impressive as the rest; more or less a connected series of underground palace hallways and chambers, that also doubled as a very efficient transportation infrastructure. St. Petersburg was fantastic. If it had nothing more going for it than the appearance of the streets it would be worth a visit, but a circus, ballet, and two side-trips to palaces were equally impressive. All that we experienced could barely be considered as scratching the surface.
Russians aren’t cheerful or chatty on the subway, and getting scammed by airport shuttle drivers can come up, but so many people there were very genuine and kind. Strangers made it work out for us, helping us out of glitches, which were almost always based on relatively few people speaking English. I’m glad the trip did cross a little into the subject of tea but it was even better on those other levels.