How Are Samovars Used?
Following up on last month’s coffeemaker post, I was reviewing search results that brought people to my blog again and found a question I really didn’t answer. The search was about how to use a samovar to make tea. In my samovar post earlier this year, I talked about what samovars are, but not so much about how to actually use one. Let’s see if I can rectify that situation.
A traditional samovar has two parts: the water heating unit and a small teapot on top. Originally, the water was heated by coal or charcoal, with a chimney rising through the center. Nowadays, electric samovars are common — as much as you can call a samovar “common,” anyway. Either way, you can draw the hot water off from a spigot near the bottom. The spigot is visible, albeit not too clear, on the Turkish samovar pictured in this post.
The samovar would sit in the center of the room (and would help to heat the room, in fact). The main compartment of the samovar contained only water. The little teapot on top was loaded with rich black tea and allowed to steep all day long. When anyone wanted a cup of tea, they would pour a bit of the strong tea from the pot and then fill the cup the rest of the way with hot water.
After steeping that long, and being brewed so strong, the tea would be quite bitter. Depending on whether the samovar was being used by Russians, Turks, Georgians, or some other group, they might add anything from sugar to yak milk to the tea to cut the bitterness.
Today, the main compartment of the samovar may be used to brew tea — or just to keep it hot after being brewed in another vessel. That way, you can serve the tea from the spigot at the bottom of the samovar. The pot, if present, is often simply ornamental.
New toy! A Russian samovar
We have mostly modern equipment in the tea bar and at home. The Zojirushi water heater does a fabulous job of bringing water up to temperature and holding it there, with multiple selectable temperature ranges and thermostat. But I’ve always loved traditional equipment, and I’m fascinated by the ways different parts of the world prepare their tea.
I just purchased a Russian samovar (see picture) made in 1980. Traditional metal samovars in Russia date back to the early 1700s, when they used charcoal or other fuels to heat the water. A “chimney” ran vertically through the middle of the samovar, where the fuel generated the heat. The vessel was filled with water that would be drawn from a tap on the bottom. Often, a teapot was placed directly on top, so there would be concentrated prepared tea in addition to the heated water surrounding the chimney.
One of the things I’ve always loved about samovars is their steampunk look. They metal is often beautifully worked and etched or engraved. My new one is made of brass plated with silver/nickel. The samovar is designed for a communal tea setting, where it is kept going all day long, and the condensed tea in the pot is diluted by the boiling water in the main chamber every time someone wants a cup.
My new samovar is about 18 inches tall, and powered by good old-fashioned electricity. Since Russian AC power is 220 volt, I’m going to need to make or buy an adapter to let me run it on 110 volt U.S. power, but that’s pretty easy. Given its size and weight, I think I’ll find it a spot to live at the tea bar instead of trying to take it with me wherever I go.
I think this will be a great way to enjoy some of the Russian Caravan tea that I like to drink in the afternoons. Or maybe I’ll get cross-cultural and use it for some Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey. No need to be a tea Nazi, right?