Saturday 30 March 2013

Cabinet of Curiosities by Laurie Graham

Here at The History Girls we are creating our own Cabinet of Curiosities; we will each write about, and place in said cabinet, an item which we consider to be precious or beautiful or significant or fascinating or inspirational, or just plain weird! Watch out for the 30th of the month when that is not the last day of the month and you will see what one of us has chosen.

One day we might draw all our objects together into a virtual museum.

Laurie Graham is going to start us off:

You can buy a perfectly nice working samovar these days, if you have a thousand pounds going spare, but the ones I covet are those owned by my Russian friends, passed down through generations of their families. Exiled samovars had a better survival rate than the ones that remained in Russia. Many of those were melted down for bullets.

A samovar is far more than a way of making tea. It's a gathering place, a symbol of hospitality and comfort, the Russian equivalent of our open hearth. Its imagery and its pull are powerful. This is no mere teapot.

Actually a samovar isn't a teapot at all, although a teapot can and often does nestle on top of it, keeping warm. The samovar is a water heater. The fuel may be wood chips or charcoal or dried pine cones. I did once own a small spirit-burning samovar and highly unsatisfactory it was too. I managed to singe my eyebrows several times but never produced a cup of tea that didn't smell of meths.
If the Samovar Fairy ever deposits the genuine article on your doorstep, here's how to use it. First you must make a pot of very strong tea  -  2 teaspoons of tea leaves to each cup of water  -  and leave it to steep. A mixture of leaves can work well, perhaps black tea mixed with something fruit or flower scented. A little of this concentrated tea or zavarka is what you put into your cup. Then, when the water has boiled, you open the samovar spigot and dilute the zavarka to your taste.

Russians can make quite a meal of a cuppa. Sometimes they sweeten it with jam. But their funniest trick is to hold a sugar lump between their teeth and allow the tea to percolate through it. Personally I take mine black but weak, hold the jam.

A friend said to me, 'But you can buy an affordable samovar in any Russian souvenir shop.'  True. But that would be a purely decorative samovar, a useless dust-gathering apology for something that should be handsome and functional. I want a samovar that has dents and stains and history. Please.

Photo credit: Wiki Commons


Sue Bursztynski said...

Really, it looks like a sort of elegant urn. I take my tea weak, black and with lemon, very Russian, really. No sugar or jam, but I do like the idea of holding a sugar lump in your mouth. And don't forget the fact that you have your tea in a glass in an elaborately decorative holder.. ;-).

Have you heard of the Australian custom of siping tea through a Tim Tam biscuit? You bite off the ends and use the biscuit, which is chocolate coated with chocolate filling, as a sort of straw.

Joan Lennon said...

The tea sounds revolting, but what a beauty that samovar is! No wonder you covet it. It's even more gorgeous when you click on the picture and get to see it bigger - what is it made of?

Theresa Breslin said...

Like the sugar lump idea. We have several Russian cafes in Glasgow now worth a visit not just for the tea but also for the surroundings, friendly staff and lovely cake.

bnachison said...

The English library at my college served tea every afternoon at 4:00 (terms of some donor's bequest generations ago - thank you, dead donor!), and used a lovely old samovar for the hot water. Beautiful and functional!

Anonymous said...

What a brilliant idea! It's fascinating finding out about the samovar too, I always wondered what they were actually for (or called).
What an exciting idea for posts! Looking forward to the rest!