Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Moscow Diary: Tea

Everywhere you go, there are certain questions that people ask you. In most of Africa I get asked if I’m saved. In Georgia I got asked if I liked Khatchapuri. And in Moscow I get asked what the tea is like in England. This then breaks down into sub-questions, where people ask me what brands of tea are available in England (which makes sense, as there a lot of brands of ‘English’ tea available here that I’ve never seen in the UK), how we drink our tea (with MILK? Really?), and what I think of Russian tea. I’ve also been asked twice why English Breakfast is called English Breakfast (me: “err... because we drink it for breakfast?” Russian: “but is it made in the UK?” Me: “no, I think it’s made in India” Russian: “So why English breakfast? Why not just breakfast” Me: “Err....”)

The reason is that Russians really love their tea. I live in a particularly tea-loving household, with a housemate who is a professional tea taster (seriously, that job exists) and with only one box of teabags in the house (some redbush ones I brought from the UK, which my housemates have relegated to a dark corner of the cupboard). But ordinary cafes and restaurants have huge tea menus, usually with several types of black and green teas, as well as various types of tea with berries and other herbs added (for pedants: often these involve actual tea as well, so can accurately be called ‘teas’ rather than ‘infusions’). When I travelled to the country for the weekend with a couchsurfer, I was given vast amounts of tea made with bundles of herbs added, brewed strong in a teapot, and topped up with water from the kettle. And my colleagues regularly have in-depth discussions about the best things to add to regular black tea. It’s a pretty limited sample, but it seems fair to say that the Russians like their tea.

This obviously has its advantages – I, along with most other British people I know, constantly complain about how in many countries they make tea with hot water rather than boiling water, so it’s never quite right. And that isn’t a problem in Russia. Plus drinking lots of different teas is fun, and whereas I resent paying a cafe to dump a teabag in a mug, I don’t resent paying them to make me a mix of tea and berries in a little teapot.

The downside, though, is the questioning. There is an apparently widespread view of the UK as some kind of tea-drinking mecca. Which is ironic, while the UK consumes huge amounts of tea each year, our tea-making doesn’t generally extend to much more than dumping a Tetley teabag in the mug and adding boiling water. Our tea preferences are generally limited to the exact amount of milk and a totally baffling interest in whether the milk should go in the cup before or after you pour (aside: if you put the milk in first, how on earth do you judge if you’ve put in the right amount?). But of course I don’t want to tell them that, because it would be like telling a six year old that Santa doesn’t exist. So I’m left explaining that we like our tea strong and with milk, and that it’s very different from Russian tea and they’re both good in their own way. And meanwhile, my colleagues, who’ve mostly actually been to the UK, tell me what a disappointment it was to them.

Conclusion: if I ever have a Russian visitor in the UK, I need to get some seriously good tea, and put some serious effort into preparing it.

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