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In the art noveau surrounds of the Chaliapin bar at Moscow’s Metropol Hotel, named in honour of opera singer Feodor Chaliapin, an incredible feast has been laid out before me, while someone tickles the ivories gently in the background.
Four different kinds of delicately portioned sandwiches fight with macaroons, pana cotta and homemade truffles for space on a tiered stand. Adjacent to it is a plate overflowing with pancakes, red caviar, sweet and savoury pies and various jams. Sitting imperiously at the top of the table is a sliver-plated samovar (a kind of ornate Russian kettle) full of recently boiled water.
This is the Russian tea ceremony. A largely rural tradition, it effectively died out with migration to the cities and during the Soviet era. And the Metropol wants to bring it back.
The Gift of Tea
It’s said that tea first arrived in Russia in the mid-17th century, from the Mongolians via a Russian ambassador. Initially only available to the elites, it later filtered down to the towns and villages.
“One of the distinct turning points of tea was the middle of the 18th century when it arrived in the lowest of social groups,” I’m told. “Two traditions mixed, tea and hospitality, but a specific type of hospitality: whole households would visit each other. It was normal to have tables of 20, 30 people from several households.”
The Metropol, Moscow
These large social gatherings could go on for hours, sometimes the whole day. But with urbanisation, people’s social networks shrunk, despite them now living in bigger communities, and small apartments of course couldn’t accommodate large groups of people. So, while people continued to drink tea, the tradition died out.
The Metropol is now the only place in Moscow where you can enjoy a Russian tea ceremony, at the bar or in the rooms, priced at 5000 RUB (around 70 euros) for two to four people, though they admit that it is more popular with tourists than with Russians.
A Tea Time Feast
The Russian tea ceremony is significantly more food-focused than English or Chinese tea ceremonies. The offering at the Metropol has been devised by the hotel’s brand chef and S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2018 mentor Andrey Shmakov – who also has a restaurant at the hotel, Savva – using 100% Russian products.
One of the highlights is a traditional Russian dessert called medick, which consists of layers of honey and whipped cream and was created, legend has it, for Elizabeth of Russia in the 18th century, who hated honey, but was converted after eating it. Another is the countless pancakes topped with caviar and dollops of sour cream – the pancakes symbolise life, the end of winter, and the beginning of spring, I’m told, hence are round like the sun, and should be folded and eaten with the hands.
This is washed down with a series of shots of a grain spirit called Polugar, which is known as the ‘Father of Vodka.’ It’s made by one sole producer now using traditional pot stills, but was drunk in Russia until the 19th century, before industrialisation and the birth of vodka. Age Polugar in oak barrels and you get whisky, which is why it is also referred to as ‘Brother of Whiskey.’ It has a flavour and aroma of bread, but at the hotel they’ve experimented with adding extra elements, the best of which is a horseradish infusion that will wake you instantly from any gastronomical slumber.
So, it can almost feel like the tea is an afterthought at this tea ceremony, but there are two choices, Assam and green Sencha, served with lemon if desired, and poured into ornate cups with lids on to keep the flavours inside.