East of Paris Bookstore

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Tea a la Russe


Marilyn Monroe was interested in Russian objets de vertu and even Russian literature.  Who knew?

My friend Paul owns a samovar he bought from Marilyn Monroe's estate.  He mentioned it when he sent me the photo on the left.

The samovar even bears the stamp Тула [Tula],  the city in Russia where all samovars seem to have been made.

The antique ashtray next to the samovar tray is of Russian origin and also belonged to MM.

Tula, located about 120 miles south of Moscow, was a historic center for armaments production and is near the Tolstoy estate, Ясная Поляна [Yasnaya Polyana, meaning Bright Meadow].  The Tula Samovar Museum has a large collection of 18th to 20th century samovars.

So, what is a samovar [самовар] and how does it work?  It literally means "self-boiler" and its job is to boil water, keep it hot, and keep the little tea pot, that sits on top of it, hot.  Before electricity, the center of the samovar urn usually had a metal cylinder to hold red hot coals that would heat the water around it.  Little wood or ivory encased round knobs on the top of the lid could be turned let out more or less steam.  A small tea pot, holding a very strong brew of tea, almost like an extract, would sit on the circular stand attached to the top of the lid.  When you wanted a cup of tea, you would pour a little of the extract into the cup, then you would add hot water from the spigot near the bottom of the samovar urn, thus, mixing the tea to the strength you wanted.  Everything stood on a metal tray ensuring that no water or tea dripped onto the table or tablecloth. 

East of Paris, the room with the dining table was often the most important room in a house.  Warm and cozy, it was the place for social interaction with tea and cakes.  And speaking of cups of tea ... while tea cups were used, East of Paris tea glasses were and are more popular.  For example, the crystal glass in a silver holder is from Russia while the small glass with its own saucer is from Turkey.
How was tea served?  With lemon slices, sugar, honey, or sweet fruit preserves; rarely with milk.  Sometimes, a shot of sherry or cognac would "strengthen" the tea.  And, there would be savory snacks followed by candied fruit, cakes and tarts... all of which I hope to address in future blog posts.  If you can't wait that long, I suggest the following books for recipe ideas:  A Year of Russian Feasts,  The Russian Heritage Cookbook: A Culinary Heritage Preserved in 360 Authentic Recipes, and The Russian Tea Room Cookbook.

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