Everything Stops for Tea
Russia is one of the world’s great teadrinking nations and in Moscow all sorts of teas can be taken: expensive teas and exotic teas, traditional teas and healthy herbal teas, teas in the sky and teas on a tatami mat. All are easily obtainable except tea a la russe.
Text by Peter Ellis, illustration by Sonya Hallett
Sylvie is an attractive London girl, though a little unusual, a tad strange. When, as a student, her friends spent their money on handbags and holidays, Sylvie kept her cash back for high teas at the haunts of the well heeled. She would save for an afternoon at the Dorchester, or the Savoy, or the Ritz.
I thought of Sylvie the other day, while at Coffee Mania, next to the Tchaikovsky Conservatoir on Nikitskaya. The place openly confesses its coffee craziness, but it’s also completely tea potty. Five hundred roubles for a brew, for a few dried leaves and a drop or two of hot water! Madness! It’s the price of a meal (with wine)! Sylvie wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. It got me wondering, which no-expense-spared, top-notch Moscow salon would she search out for a cuppa?
Like its London namesake, the Ritz-Carlton on Tverskaya is an obvious first port of call for those seeking the sumptuous. The over-gilded, over-furnished lobby, its margins patrolled by anxious dark-suited security, is too much a place of comings and goings, of meetings and departures to be relaxing, despite the tinkling serenades from a grand piano. But go a little further and you enter the twenty-four-hour twilight that is the Caviarterra. In this oak-panelled, calmly lit cocoon one can sit on richly carved and cushioned Empire-style armchairs and enjoy a pot with complimentary pastries, served by its attractive and charming staff, for the princely sum of 490 rubles.
“Go to the Pushkin,’’ is the advice given by most Muscovites if your aim is to impress or be impressed. But make sure you walk past the oligarchs’ favourite restaurant on Tverskoi Bulvar, Turandot, and head for the confectioner’s and tea rooms next door. The Cafe Pushkin is elegant and very reasonably priced. It boasts an international prize-winning pastry chef in Frenchman Emmanuel Ryon, is decorated in the style of Marie Antoinette and its waitresses are tastefully attired in nineteenth century costume, providing trays of refreshments next to your table on trestles.
Both the Cafe Pushkin and the Ritz-Carlton look as if they’ve been established features of Moscow Society for generations but are only a few years old, catering to the increasing demands of the capital’s nouveaux riches. The restaurant Praga on Arbat, meanwhile, has been around since the 1830s. Over time it’s been the haunt of the political, financial and artistic elite and is an ideal place to make a discrete business deal. Its patisserie specialises in extravagant cake creations with iced flowers, baroque cream swirls and transparent fruit glazes.
If Sylvia isn’t impressed by these classy Moscow joints, she may be amused by more unusual venues. Perhaps perched 330 metres above the ground in the Seventh Heaven restaurant on the Ostankino TV Tower, which is due to reopen soon, or sailing past the Kremlin on one of the pleasure craft plying the Moscow River? For more ordinary folk, the chains don’t do a bad job. Coffee House dishes up its tea in cafetieres, perhaps as consolation for not being what it considers to be the better beverage. Shokalatnitsa provides some style and service and tea in real teapots, while Koffein serves infusions in transparent pots, including Brides’ Balls (shariki nevesti), which are chrysalises of dried leaves that blossom into matrimonial bouquets as they brew.
What a Palaver!
We almost came to blows over milk, me and Sylvie. She’s a stickler for the rules: the pot and the cups must be warmed first and milk added before the tea; never, never, after. As she would say, what’s tea without the ceremony? But if Sylvia would like to experience tea served in the traditional Russian style in Moscow, she may well be disappointed. Despite its importance in Russian culture, tea topped up from a samovar and sipped with jam (varyenye) from a saucer or in a tea glass holder (podstakannik) is hard to find for the visitor. “A traditional tea shop would be just too corny, too embarrassing and only for tourists,” said one of my Russian friends.
While Russians may have qualms indulging in its own customs commercially, they revel in the traditions of other cultures. A number of Chinese tea houses have sprung up in the centre of town over the past few years, the longest established being the Tea Culture Club in Ermitage Gardens (www.chaiclub.ru) which opened in 1997. Here assistants will pour and splash tea in and over terracotta cups, generous with their time, explaining the five stages of boiling a kettle, from “eye of crab” to “wind through pine trees”. The leaves range in price from a few hundred to a few thousand rubles.
Ancient Chinese customs are now old hat with Moscow trendies; nowadays it’s mate that matters. This South American beverage (pronounced ma-tey), which uses leaves from a species of holly, should be made from hot, not boiling water and shared with friends who pass around a hollow gourd, drinking through an ornately decorated metal straw, or “bomilla”. Both medical and psychological benefits and dangers have been claimed for the stuff and drinking it is seen as a sacred act by its fans, giving harmony to the soul. Moscow’s Mate Club (on Lesteva Street near Shabolovskaya Metro www.club-mate.ru) is as much a spiritual, cultural and music venue as it is a place for sharing the “mythic draft”.
“A traditional tea shop would be just too corny, too embarrassing and only for tourists.”
“If you want tea in the traditional Russian style,” my friend told me, “you have to go out of Moscow or to somebody’s house; it’s more of a private thing than a public thing.” Certainly the trains leaving the capital have an authentic flavour themselves as you are served tea in a glass and metal podstakannik (safer in a moving carriage) from a communal samovar. And if you’re heading out of town, go south to Tula, where you can visit its samovar museum (www.tula-samovar.com.ru) and enjoy your tea with a slice of “tyulskii pryanik”, a traditional gingerbread made in the city since the seventeenth century.
Indian from China
“My ideal is a cup of Darjeeling served in delicate eighteenth century porcelain,” I remember Sylvie saying, “though I am also partial to a superior Oolong.” Muscovites would agree. Throughout its history, Russia has had strong trade links with its tea suppliers. In 1679, Russia signed a treaty with China on regular shipments via a camel caravan. India became a more important source from the nineteenth century and into the Soviet period, with the distinctive yellow-labelled “elephant tea” still being produced by the Moscow Tea Factory (www. moschay.ru). Surprisingly, the country also produces some of its own crop, with tea plantations near Sochi.
The Perlov Tea Shop on Miasnitskaya Street (Chistii Prudy Metro) stands witness to the importance of the trade. This striking example of exuberant chinoiserie, its coloured tiles shaped into dragons and pagodas, was added to decorate a tea merchant’s shop in 1896 in an attempt to secure a valuable trade contract with the orient. The range of goods inside is equally impressive, as are the prices with top teas costing tens of thousands of rubles. There’s no shortage of well-stocked tea shops in Moscow, testament to the demand, the heavyweight being the nationwide chain ‘Ounce’ (‘Unitsya’ www.chay.info).
Russia’s tea heritage is matched by its history of making tea services. The Imperial Porcelain Factory, St. Petersburg was founded in 1744 by the Empress Elizabeth (www.ipm.ru). Throughout its changing history and changing names (it was the State, later the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory in the Soviet Union) it has been famous for producing lavish and exquisitely decorated tea sets, including its “cobalt net” pattern (based on a service made for Catherine the Great), dramatic revolutionary designs, and traditional national forms, such as the unique “tulip” cup.
But times are changing. Mugs are preferred to cups and saucers; tea bags are taking over from tea pots; fruit infusions and green teas are eclipsing the normal black varieties. Green tea is from the same plant as the traditional but is processed slightly differently, not being left to oxidize, or blacken. There have been many claims for the benefits of drinking green, fruit and herbal teas and there is some evidence suggesting that regular drinkers have lower chances of heart disease and developing certain types of cancer. They have also been shown to be useful for managing the modern-day malaise of obesity.
These are claims that Sylvie, tea’s top champion, would agree with. She’s a top executive now and a rich woman, living the high life she rehearsed as a student. She invited me for tea at the Ritz the last time I was in London. The high prices and the servile service Sylvie takes in her stride, though I squirm as I feel the eyes of the waiter can easily see through to my own less-than-ritzy bank balance. But Sylvie has always been generous and leaves him a large tip or, as they say in Russia, “Eta vam na chai” (“That is for your tea”).