Tea Culture: Russian Caravan

The early autumn, blustery Wuthering Heights-like weather in New York right now has me in what I can only describe as a Russian mood. I’ve been dreaming about hunting for forest mushrooms in the Russian tradition but the best I could do was score a bag at Kalyustan’s the other day (they have a forest blend) to fry them up in onions and butter for my little one. The smell alone takes me back to my own childhood and our occasional visits to my Grandma Safko’s house in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, which was fully decorated in Ukrainian regalia from picture frames to pillows. My grandmother also regularly made pierogies at the Ukrainian Catholic church across the street, where she sometimes took me for bingo and Chinese auctions. I always envied my cousin who got to take Ukrainian there.

Russian tea service, via couches and pillows

Something about the cooler, darker weather has also brought me back to my favorite Russian teas and perfumes. Tea culture and traditions around the world fascinated me well before I became a more conscious tea drinker; I often visited tearooms in my travels. Among the most transporting was Tajikistan Tearoom in Berlin (a gift from Russia to Germany from a time when Tajikistan was part of the former USSR.) I went there about six years ago with a friend who trekked to Antarctica on a National Science Foundation grant and has a knack for finding great spots. The places where we could lounge on couches and pillows for hours most impressed me. (I’d only previously encountered this style of tea drinking on my honeymoon in Turkey and am naturally inclined to a relaxed way of eating and drinking that allows one to sip tea and eat snacks over a long period of time.) The service we had with blini, rum-soaked raisins and a bit of vodka has stayed in my mind for years and has helped inform my style of entertaining–to offer refreshments in a way that makes any guest in my home feel as comfortable as possible and maybe even takes him or her to new places.

Russian Earl Grey

This past summer I attended an iced tea soiree at the Kusmi shop on New York’s Upper West Side and was delighted to discover Bouquet of Flowers No. 108–the centuries-old French-Russian tea maker’s first blend, made in 1880 for the owner’s daughter (I’d thought all these years that their inaugural tea was the more well-known Anastasia.) Badr and Marion at the shop were gracious hosts and sent me home with some beautiful samples. I love Bouquet of Flowers No. 108 for its daintiness–the flowers soften the boldness of the citrusy Earl Grey. It’s far more delicate than Anastasia, one of my favorite tea gifts for friends and relatives over the years, and also an exquisite Russian tea. Some of my other favorite blends in the strong Russian citrusy black tea category are Romanoff from American Tea Room (notice a Russian Imperial dynasty theme here?) and Palais des ThesSeven Citrus Russian Blend. The combination of Chinese black tea with citrus has been common to Russia since the 17th century; during the 1800s, blends with Indian Darjeeling and black teas from other countries became more fashionable among Russian nobility. Bellocq‘s Gypsy Caravan No. 54, a mix of Chinese and Indian blacks, is an absolute treasure, smooth, rich and smoky, with luxurious rose.

Russian tea culture: just a bit of jam

I was already deep into my Russian tea adventure when I received a note from Smith Teamaker saying that Tony Tellin had collaborated with James Beard award-winning restauranteur Vitaly Paley to create a Georgian Caravan tea experience–a blend of black teas smoked with hickory chips soaked in blackberries and vodka, and housemade huckleberry jam. Naturally, I was intrigued and immediately ordered some (as previous readers of Tea with Ms. Ezersky already know, tea with jam from Brighton Beach is a fixture in lessons with my 86-year-old Russian teacher.) Do read more here about Tony and Vitaly’s adventures with Georgian Caravan. Note that their tea and jam pairing got the nod of approval from Vitaly’s mother and inspired her to recount stories about tea rituals from Russia. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall for that.

In other inspiring developments, Mamushka: Recipes from Ukraine and Eastern Europe comes out in the U.S. on Tuesday, October 6! I’ve been pining for this cookbook for a while (my grandmother gave me a Time-Life edition of Russian Cooking when I was small, and I spent many hours looking at photos of braided breads and decorated eggs long before I knew how to cook.) Mamushka’s author, Olia Hercules, has worked at Ottolenghi and takes a fresh, seasonal approach to Eastern European cooking; she always seems to be digging up new recipes from time-tested traditions in the region and lesser known locales. Fall and winter in my house will be sure to involve some Mamushka-inspired experiments.

The smell of Imperial Russia (and Silk Road Caravans)

The romance of old Russia has captured artists’ imaginations and inspired perfume makers for centuries, particularly scents with strong notes of smoke, leather and citrus. One can hardly neglect to mention the classic Cuir de Russie (created in a 1920s collaboration between Coco Chanel and Ernest Beaux—supplier of perfumes to Russia’s Imperial court and also responsible for Chanel no. 5.) The smoky Cuir de Russie comes from a longstanding tradition of woodsy, leathery Russian colognes, often made for men, though more commonly regarded as unisex today, like Acqua di Colonia Russa from Florence’s 13th century Santa Maria Novella, which made perfume for Catherine de Medici. Their Russian cologne has strong notes of citrus, and evokes a combination of sharpness and richer smoky depths, not unlike the Earl Grey Russian teas. In a similar vein, but even more robust, is Krigler’s Hermitage Heritage 04, with tobacco and vetiver. It’s explicitly listed as a masculine fragrance, though I do wear it myself sometimes when I’m feeling especially bold. In a modern throwback, Masque Milano unveiled its Russian Tea perfume last year, calling up the days of Silk Road caravans and nights by the campfire. For a quick old-world escape, try wearing it while drinking Bellocq’s Gypsy Caravan tea. Instant time travel. Na zdorovie, wherever it may take you.

Favorite Russian teas, scents, rituals or recipes? Please do share them here.  Read more here, too, about how you can inhabit the gypsy caravan vibe with millennia-old couture.

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