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This time I will speak about those small and pleasant tea things which were invented in Russia: tea with lemon, drinking tea from the saucer, and tea ‘vprikusku’ (drinking tea holding a lump of sugar in the mouth).

Black tea with lemon.
Black tea with lemon.

I will start with lemons. The popularity of this ‘yellow sour thing’, together with the popularity of tea, was promoted by Russian roads and post stations located at roadsides. Now it may seem hardly believable, but until the end of the 19th century, posts were not only the concentration of the hosts’ daughters — the delight of visitant officers, but also banal rest stations for travelers or messengers, who suffered from travel sickness on our roads. They were simply jolted on the journey. In this jolted state, travelers — be they small couriers or prominent governor-generals — could not eat anything.

But they drank tea gladly — because already at that time the drink was known to help all the jolted and sick. It was also known that everything sour or salty cures sea-sickness. Traditional Russian sour and salty things were pickled cucumbers and sauerkraut — these were readily offered at posts. Poorer travelers were never fastidious and ate it. Better-off people were fastidious and they were served lemons. Who and when contrived to put together tea and lemon is a mystery. But the fact that this particular combination (and not tea with pickles, for example) took root is undoubtedly fortunate for us…

Tea with lemon made its way from posts to metropolitan salons rather fast. In Western Europe such tea drinking was taken for exclusively aristocratic one — and black tea with a slice of lemon, added directly into the cup, was called ‘Russian tea’.

The custom to drink tea from the saucer, spread among the merchant class mostly, owes its origin to the samovar. In these urns, water remained boiling or next to boiling quite long. The tea pot was kept on top of the samovar, so, the brew was also very hot. It was simply impossible to drink such tea, but they wanted it, urgently. Thus they started pouring it into saucers. First, it faster got cooler there. Second, one could sip tea from the saucer and mix it with air when inhaling. Sounds which were produced at such tea-sipping sprees did not suit a respectful society. But in informal surroundings — in a cottage terrace or a balcony — tea was drunk loudly; it was sipped and with great pleasure. When you look at Kustodiyev’s Merchant Woman (‘Kupchikha’) it becomes evident that when this girl takes a sip, she does it heartily.

Classic brown sugar.
Classic brown sugar.

As for tea ‘vprikusku’, this custom arose purely out of thrift. The idea of drinking sugared tea was not all that self-evident for our ancestors — because of high prices both for tea and for sugar. Nevertheless, they wanted to sweeten life and resigned to the necessity of extra spending. Not all of them, though.

At better-off houses everything was very easy — it was customary to under-fill the cup with tea. Guests could easily add sugar or jam into the cup — and such under-filled cups were the symbol of wealth of the house and respect for the guest. At poorer houses hosts filled cups full, so that nothing else could be put into the cup. Lumps were chopped off from a sugar-loaf right at the table. These lumps guests put into the mouth and drank tea through lumps of sugar.

This way of tea drinking took root too. When tea and sugar became much cheaper, and the economical motive of tea ‘vprikusku’ disappeared, there remained only a mass habit of drinking tea with sugar (which is bad both for tea and for teeth) in this most original manner.

It is worth noting that at that time sugar was different from the one we normally use today. First, it was not refined, it was brown, and it tasted a bit different. Second, it was lump crystal sugar. These crystal lumps were like candies and could serve for quite a long time.

Sorry for this unhygienic detail, but, having drunk their tea, guests often left the rest of the sugar lump (the one they held in the mouth) to hosts. There is no mention of what was done to these lumps later — maybe, the hosts put the leftovers into a special box with compartments, which had names of the guests on them, so that next time, each guest could drink tea with their own lump of sugar.

Denis Shumakov (denis.shumakov@gmail.com)

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