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Mr. Manners: The Russian Tea Culture

As the Czar would have it - Tea with jam and sugar if you please…

I was never much of a tea drinker. In our home, Mom had a Bialetti Café Moka in which our cocinera, Aquilina, would brew her coffee with freshly ground barako or Baguio Cordillera. The moka was served to her in a bed tray, with her cup, ashtray and lighter. Mom never left her bed till about noon. She did all her work in her lavender Gragero night gown, her favorite color. Production schedules, design issues, and meetings with the factory workers all happened around her bed, in between sips of coffee, and puffs of smoke billowing. She would then step into her dressing room, with a huge mirror with running lights much like a parlor, to put on her face, as she would say, and yes, sip her coffee, followed by a long drag on her Dunhill cigarette pipe. Dressed in a duster with matching chinelas, she walked out to lunch. Mom liked an entourage, this being five pure bred German shepherds that surrounded her all day and night.

My mother was a character, and I guess I took after her. I could never say I was conventional, but I liked to enjoy myself while I worked. Mom worked hard. She opted not to go to college in Boston to marry my father. She was the only Diokno that did not have a title to her name. No Dr., Atty., Phd, and definitely not senator. But she married, for the man she loved and made a go of it. Together, we are five children, and I think they did right by us.

Mom liked her coffee, but occasionally, when we got tea as gifts from Dad’s foreign friends, I would see mom having it steeped in hot water, and served in her favorite Noritake set that we used at home for a long while. The gold patterned set for 36 was a gift of Julius Limpe, of Distelleria Limtuaco (father of Olivia Limpe-Aw)  when our home burned in the Christmas of 1961. The service, what is left of it, is with me. And when I use it, it sparks memories like these.

Like mom, I prefer coffee. Espresso is my poison. But since my TIA (a mild stroke) I have kept to drinking an occasional tea. My first real understanding of tea is what I had read in Agatha Christie novels, and being introduced to the continental world of Hercule Poirot, nothing more. Years later, Mom and I travelled to Europe, to London as a stop and we stayed at the Connaught in Mayfair.  This was in the early 90’s and the hotel was still quite stodgy British. This was my first experience of afternoon tea.  The lounge as I recall was light-filled yet burnished wood overpowered the room. Crisp linens and liveried waiters swooshed by, and Mom said this was the time to learn civility. She eschewed the tea service and asked for a gin and tonic, but gingerly ate the scones, with clotted cream and butter. The savories were as I remember it to be bites that I never tried before. She told me to enjoy the moment because it was expensive, and watch and recall how I feel with every bite. In this particular case, I was lost for words, and I couldn’t believe I was in this drawing room, sipping tea (and a Coke with ice).

In many trips for work or pleasure, especially in London, I took time to have afternoon tea. Favorite hotels were the Berkeley, then the Mandarin Oriental, or shopping behemoth Harrod’s. I went back to the Connaught after it was redone, and it didn’t feel much the same way. But I guess they needed to keep up with the times. Being in Asia always made it easy to experience British colonial traditions in the Peninsula Hongkong – a must for the uninitiated – but sadly, it has become a tourist attraction. The hush in the lobby has given way to the harsh chatter of mainlanders comparing their shopping spree at the nearby mass-luxe marquee stores.

If Mom were alive today, she would still go to the Pen in the afternoons to enjoy the music and the tea service. Sadly, with the no smoking rules in check (this is what killed her), she wouldn’t be any mood. Or she would find solace at the Raffles Long Bar, with an easy-access smoking area!

 

 

The Raffles, at the Writers Lounge or the Long Bar, has given their own take on afternoon tea. Inspired by the slew of British series like The Crown, the hotel is now on it’s third homage to the monarchs of yore, with the Imperial Afternoon Tea.  

The Russian Tea service is unique. The choice of tea, called Russian Caravan, is a dark, smokey, black oolong variety. The tea gets it’s moniker from the 18 month camel journey in the 17th century from China to Russia, hence, caravan. The distinctive flavor, which reminded me of pipe tobacco, is attributed to the caravan’s campfires over the duration of the trek.

 

 

While the colonial tea service garners images of bone china, and silver pots. The center of the Imperial Court is the samovar. The samovar is a self-heating water kettle, part brasier, part dispenser. Russian writers paid homage to this unique kettle in a myriad of novels. The samovar came on its own with the need to boil water in harsh conditions over high heat. The Chinese tea sets just didn’t cut it. So in the 1770s the Russians used the Mongolian design to develop the samovar: sam (self) + varit (to boil), or self-boiler.  

A pipe that ran through the middle of the samovar was filled with charcoal, and as it burned, the heated water was held in the large urn. On top of the pipe, a teapot holds the concentrated tea called zavarka. 

That afternoon, Sheryl Ebon, Certified Tea Sommelier & Founder, of Teavolution presented the Russian manner for tea.

 

 

Russian tea culture, Ebon explained, is the two-step brewing process. Firstly, the tea concentrate zavarka is prepared: a quantity of dry tea sufficient for several persons is brewed in a small teapot. Then, each person pours some quantity of this concentrate into the cup and mixes it with hot water; thus, one can make one's tea as strong as one wants, according to one's taste. Jam is placed in the tea cup before the zavarka is poured, and acts as a sweetener. Diluted with hot water from the spigot of the samovar, it is ready to be enjoyed. Ebon adds that the Imperial service is further enhanced by placing a sugar cube in the tongue as the tea is taken.

Like the British monarchs, this dark oolong tea is served with sweets and savories. This time interpreted by the chefs with Russian inspiration. But what is more Russian than the polvoron-like tea cookies! Flour, butter, nuts and confectioners sugar complete the mash of ingredients for this confection.

The culture of drinking tea is a actually a step back in time. It brings me back to when Mom would have tea in our family home in San Juan. Or our first tea service in London. But actually sipping tea is imbibing a history of conquest and civility. Why not make your own tea tradition?

Who would have thought Russians had time for tea? Maybe in between vodka and caviar perhaps? Pushkin would be pleased that writers of his generation extolled the values of the samovar, and made a distinct facet in Russian literature.

But sorry, just for me, still cuppa tea, no jam, and pass the scones – clotted cream and butter if you please?

 

 
Now at the Raffles’ Writers Lounge| Offered starting February 1 until April 30, the Imperial Afternoon Tea features a three-tier assembly of Russian-inspired savoury and sweet bite-sized delights, delicately prepared by the hotel’s master chefs. Indulge in this delectable collection for two, which can be enjoyed daily from 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m