no recipe · on USSR / Russia

Midsummer: Samovar, Teacups and Saucers

Samovar and Sushki
Photographer: Vasily Mulyukin. Model: Natalia

It’s midsummer already – and for the lack of very shiny summer-time photos as St Petersburg is being rather naughty with the weather, I think I’d better pour you a cup of tea and treat you to some sushki! Moreover, my midsummer was spent in window cleaning at our dacha which entailed some more cleaning as a side effect. So it’s time for another Soviet kitchen heirloom post!

Soviet Teacups

I’ve been recently routinely going through all the stuff we’re keeping at our dacha and got interested in the odd teacups and saucers each having their own history to such a point that I googled their logos to find out which year and factory they belong to…  And found out that we have items made at the famous Lomonosov porcelain factory, several Moscow region ones, Novgorod, Tver and Yekaterinburg region, Riga and Zhitomir (Ukraine).

Soviet SaucersSoviet Saucers

An array of saucers from the Soviet porcelain factories, 1970-1990s

You see, the purpose of a Russian dacha may as well vary from family to family but in any case this is a place to dump all the unnecessary but so very dear things par excellence. Even the newly purchased plots with freshly built cottages end up becoming a landfill for disused objects of all sorts and kinds. Hence the annual opening of our dacha season with the traditional cleaning and ‘please, let’s get rid of this all’ from my side. But at the same time when each and every item has its own long and cherished history, how could your hand rise (Russian saying) on it?!

Soviet Teacups
They still serve kompot (boiled fruit juice) or even tea (with lots of sugar) at schools and hospitals in these handle-less cups. The reason? It’s cheaper if you break it!

If you know what a caverne d’Ali Baba a Soviet dacha can become with the passing of the years most of which were governed by the ‘nothing is disposable’ principle, you will understand the painstaking process of negotiating the necessity of each item might go on forever.  But I’m stubborn as a goat (this is how we say it in Russia).

Electric Samovar, 1989 USSR

One of such cleaning operations revealed that this 1988 electric (!) samovar which was a very wide-spread type of gift in the USSR (for the lack of anything else available) fell into total disuse since God knows when. So I cleaned it, asked Dad to change the cord and took it to my place. And now it’s my best tea-friend! The water stays warm longer than in an electric kettle, by the way. Samovar means cooking (boiling) by itself and the name applies only to this sort of ‘kettles’. Of course a traditional samovar would be pine cones or coal-ignited with an – obligatory – old boot (!) placed upside down on top of the samovar to promptly rekindle fire (acting as bellows) but… We’re more civilized now though certainly way less romantic 🙂

Soviet Teacups

Drinking tea in Russia certainly surpasses the mere need to replenish the liquid content in the organism. It’s an every-day tradition and a 24-hour habit. Thus a samovar (or a kettle) is in some way the center of the universe, well, at least, equally important with the hearth. The family would gather round the samovar, inviting friends and relatives – and even a stranger – to drink some tea, joining a spontaneous or – rather – a non-stop tea party.

Samovar and Sushki
Photographer: Vasily Mulyukin. Model: Natalia

A traditional Russian way with tea is to drink it piping hot from a saucer (to make it cool faster, see above), nibbling at a lump of sugar or indulging in homemade varenye (jam) and pryaniki. Or some buns like vatrushka or sochen. Or a savory pie, like borkannik or kolob. Or a buterbrod. Or blini… Or sushki (boiled and than baked circles of dough, see photo) and baranki (larger circles) and bublik (even larger circles, close to the Greek Thessaloniki koulouri but much denser). The today’s trend to prefer herbal tea rather to the super-black one is actually ‘the past well-forgotten’: tea leaves being too expensive, people in Russia would drink rosebay dubbed Ivan-chai (Ivan-tea) instead.

Samovar and Sushki
Photographer: Vasily Mulyukin. Model: Natalia

We still have a dusty real samovar waiting for its rebirth there in the attic – one day my long hands will get there too)… The water in a samovar is heated with the pipe that runs all through its body. The circle on top of the samovar (where the pipe ends) is perfect for the tea kettle filled with zavarka (tea leaves, not tea bags!) scaled with hot water, to keep it permanently warm – but also to slow down the boiling. The fuel would go underneath the water container or the samovar’s belly and the notorious sapog (boot) would go right on top. A big samovar may have an external pipe and by saying ‘big’ I mean it. Though some samovars (travel-size) could be for several cups of tea only, a large one would be fit for a crowd.

Samovar and Sushki
Photographer: Vasily Mulyukin. Model: Natalia

A summer tea party with a steaming samovar on a big table covered with all sorts of dainties on a bright cloth used to be considered something of a meschanstvo (petty bourgeoisie) once… Especially ‘knocking’ on the tea cup while dissolving sugar with a teaspoon, oh-lala quelle horreur! 🙂 Now that the samovar tea drinking process is a ritual quite well-forgotten in Russia, I doubt it has this connotation any more. A a samovar brings warmth and liveliness into a house. It sings (!) while it boils, it gurgles and inevitably scorches. Just imagine the extra aroma when fueling it with pine cones!.. And yes, Russians would order hot tea even when it’s hot outside. It’s just something that our body requires regardless of the weather.

Studio photography: Vasily Mulyukin. Model: Natalia Vorobyshkina

My midsummer series:

Adding this to my “on Russia” post collection.


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