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The first evidence of tea in Russia dates back to 1567, when two Cossacks - Petrov and Yalychev - described it as a wonderful Chinese beverage and decided to drink it regularly. However, it was not until the late 17th century that tea became a staple commodity imported regularly to Moscow. For nearly two centuries, tea was available only in that city, remaining the sole preserve of Muscovites, who were mockingly called "tea drinkers" or "hot water drinkers" by other Russians. It was only from the 1850s that tea drinking spread throughout the empire and was taken up by all social classes.
Tea in Russia is inseparable from the samovar. Invented in the early 18th century in the Urals, this object designed for preparing tea was not widely adopted until tea became more accessible. The samovar is a kind of large kettle for making tea which contains several liters of water kept at the right temperature, as well as a source of heat around which the whole family keeps warm.
The samovar consists of a brazier, a large urn with its center hollowed out, and a chimney. A charcoal fire is prepared in the brazier, which serves to heat the air in the chimney above it. This system allows the water to be brought to and kept at a constant temperature. The shape of the samovar is designed so that one can hear the various stages at which the water boils: it starts by "singing", then "humming", and finally "rumbling like thunder". It is when the water hums that it is ready.
A faucet located on the outside of the urn allows cups and teapots to be filled easily. The teapot, in which a highly concentrated extract of tea has been prepared, is placed above the chimney to keep it warm. Each person serves himself by pouring a little tea from the pot into a cup and then diluting it with hot water. To cool the beverage, the contents of the cup are often emptied into a saucer and the tea is drunk directly from this second receptacle.
Tea occupies a prominent place in Russian society and has even given the language some of its common idiomatic expressions: a "tip", for example, is a na tchaï, which means "for tea". On a social level, meeting around a cup of tea has taken on various meanings. What began as an occasion for an intimate family gathering later became a social event in which the urbane, formal dimension completely overshadowed any warmth and coziness.
Today, drinking a cup of tea around the samovar is a warm, friendly gesture, comparable to original family gatherings for which descriptions can be found in all Russian literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is a time for sharing with family and friends, a time when everyone stops for a moment to enjoy the warmth and each other's presence.
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