Downton Dish: Russian Tea

What with Mary’s ‘sketching trips’ and Edith’s creepiness and Robert’s pouting, you may have missed the little tidbit that Rose has started volunteering. Her chosen cause: dispossessed Russian aristocrats. While perhaps not a demographic one thinks of immediately when the words ‘in need’ come to mind, she’s pretty dedicated to them, and it’s nice to see her getting out of the house and doing something more useful than propping up Ripon’s radio installers.

Following the 1917 Revolution, those aristocrats lucky enough to escape the Bolsheviks found themselves wandering rootlessly around Europe and Asia. Having lost everything and ill equipped to find useful occupations, many resorted to low-paying, unskilled work (though many also worked in the fashion industry in Paris, which was a popular destination for many members of the Russian nobility, including the dowager empress). Others were forced to rely on the charity of others, like Rose.

One thing the Russians and the English definitely had in common was their mutual love of tea. The Russians loved themselves some tea, and they had their own elaborate teatime rituals, which revolved around the samovar, the metal vessel in which the water was heated. People would gather around the samovar, an essential piece of any household kit, and gossip or catch up on each others’ news while enjoying the national beverage (yes, it is, in fact, tea and not vodka).

Tea was introduced to Russia in 1638, when Tsar Michael I received about 70 kg of the stuff from a Mongolian ruler. For many years tea was prohibitively expensive and was enjoyed only by the wealthy. Catherine the Great increased tea imports in the 18th century, bringing prices down and allowing tea to be drunk more widely throughout the country.

While the English take their tea with milk and sugar, the Russians tended to do something a little different and often mixed a bit of jam into their tea to sweeten it. Feel free to give it a try, or just enjoy a nice, strong cup of Russian Caravan (its distinct, smoky flavour is attributed to the campfires that burned at night during the long trek to bring the tea into Russia).

Russian Tea


3T black tea
2 T strawberry jam
Milk, to taste (optional)
Sugar, to taste (optional)

Rinse the inside of your teapot with boiling water, then while the teapot is still hot add 3T black tea. Immediately cover and allow the steam to condition the leaves.

After 5-10 seconds, add your boiling water.

Stir in the strawberry jam.

Let steep for at least 15 minutes, to get a very strong tea.

Pour half a cup’s worth of brewed tea into a teacup and top off with half a cup’s worth of water. If you want to, add milk and extra sugar to taste.

Helpful tip: Create an endless pot of tea by keeping at least half the tea concentrate in your teapot and simply adding more boiling water–and jam–to keep the tea going for up to 3 hours.

Image: The Merchant’s Wife by Boris Kustodiev

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