Christmastide is festive, and food is central to the celebration. Here is a journey with drink and food across the globe— from the Potomac Valley to China, across Siberia, then to Turkey, and up to The Netherlands. Finally, the circle closes as we arrive back to the Potomac.
Are you ready? Perhap this culinary journey will prepare us to celebrate that long journey of the Three Magi… the Three Wise Men… the Three Kings... on January 6, the Twelfth and Last Day of Christmas.
Lrt’s begin. Driving through the countryside near Sharpsburg, Maryland, near the Upper Potomac River, I frequently think about visiting a small Mennonite bakery and buying their Russian Teacakes. They are so tempting, and only two blocks from the main street I drive through. So, I usually do stop. I buy a dozen small teacakes, and serve a few of them with tea when I arrive home in the late afternoon.
These teacakes are in the tradition of “Jumbles", as they were called in Medieval England. That is, the are very simple, very dense, and resist going stale for many weeks and months. The only ingredients are sugar, flourr, eggs, water and perhaps some nuts. They don’t crush or crumble, and they are a perfect “road food” for any pilgrimage. I wonder if the Magi carried a supply with them, along with their frankincense, myrrh, and gold?
But what about the tea that goes with the teacake? Tea drinking originated in Yunnan province in China over three thousand years ago. It eventurally spread to Europe by ship from China and India, and also by overland “caravan” through Siberia. The long sea journey degraded the tea with the high humidity and heat of the tropical oceans. Only when the Suez Canal was opened, and the journey considerably shorted, did the quality of sea-shpped tea improve.
But the long overland route with dry and cold air through Siberia made what we now call “Russian Caravan Tea” especially aromatic and delicious.
Beginning with a treaty between the Russian Czar and the Chinese Emperor in 1689, annual caravans of Asian (Bactrian) camels made the year-long journey along the "Siberian Tea Road" beginning in China and ending in Moscow. It was a famous as the “Silk Road” that crossed a southerly route through the deserts and steppes of Central Asia. But this Siberian route meant one or two bitter cold winters crossing the frozen north.
What kind of tea was it? It probably vaired with each shipment and included not only black tea in the mix, but also a bit of oolong, green tea, and smoked tea. (Below is my recipe for blending and recreating Russian Caravan Tea.)
And how was it served? In a unique tea brewing vessel called a “Samovar.” Originally, it was wood-fired and the water drawn off from the samovar into a seperate teapot. That teapot was then placed atop the samovar to keep warm. The brew was very condensed and strong. The tea-drinker would pour a small amount of the brew into a porcelain cup from the teapot above, and then add boiling water from the samovar below to thin the drink to taste.
The samovar would be kept at a simmer all day long, and family and guests would gather around the table to talk, drink, and eat sweets… like Russian Teacakes.
In Siberia, where life was harder, teacups would be made of native birchwood and then lacquered in the Chinese style. The insides were heat-resistant, and thse wood teacups would be a delightful way to sip Russian caravan tea.
You may even want to put a cube of sugar under your tongue and then sip the tea, as is the custom along the Siberian Tea Road.
And where did Russian tea traditions spread? First, to Turkey where a very delicate black tea is grown along the Black Sea. But this is a recent tradition, started by Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic, in the 1920s. Having lost the coffee growing region of Yemen in the First World War, the Turks could no longer afford to import their beloved coffee from the Yemeni Arabs.
And so Ataturk organized the great state-owned tea plantations along the Black Sea to substitute home-grown tea for imported coffee. Today Turkey is the fourth largest producer of tea, and has the highest per capita consumption of tea in the world. And the ornate samovar has been transformed into a simpler but unique Turkish version that is present in every Turkish home.
Turkish tea is very mild and always served in a tulip-shaped glasses. Turkish tea culture is very different from Russian, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian tea cultures. While Russian tea is alwas served with sliced lemon and sugar, Turkish tea is served with sugar alone. The tulip shaped glasses permit holding the hot tea by the rim of the glass, and the teaspoon is not taken out of the glass while drinking!
Since the dry inland areas of Turksh Anatolia is a perfect place to grow a citrus called the Bergamot, Turkish tea leaves are sometimes flavored with Bergamot Oil… and known elsewhere in the world as “Earl Grey Tea”.
If we continue our journey around the world, our next stop is a very unique European tea-culture enclave: East Frisia, a small enclave of Frisian-speaking people on the North Sea coast of Germany. (This is the home of Femke, the runaway girl in yesterday’s story. East Frisian Tea contrasts three very different flavors: heavy cream, strong black tea, and lumps of rock sugar.
The secret is in the ritual of pouring hot tea into a porcelain cup with a lump of rock candy already resting in the cup. The riock sugar will crackle and pop onn contact with the hot tea. Next you carefully spoon in heavy whipping cream so that it flows through the tea like billowing clouds.
Then, without stirring, you sip first “the heavens above”, the creamy soft swirls. Then “the waters of the middle” which is sharp and astringent. Finally the melting sugar, “the land below ” on the bottom, which is sweet, syrupy and smooth. Three distinct experiences quickly follow one another in a single long sip, savored slowly. (A source for East Frisian Tea is at the bottom of the page.)
Now, lets take our tea caravan across the Atlantic and back to the Potomac River. This time not the Upper Potomac, but the Lower Potomac that flows into the Chesapeake Bay. We all know that the American colonists were great tea drinkers, at least before a certain Boston Tea Party. George and Martha Washington, living on the Potomac at Mount Vernon were no exceptions. And with the tea that George himself ordered from a tea merchant in England, Martha served her version of teacakes.
Take to a journey on the Tea Road this coming year. A well-prepared tea is as precious as frankincense, myrhh, and gold carried by the Magi on their own camel caravan long ago.
My tea source for East Frisian Tea is the Upton Tea Company. They also sell a very good Russian Caravan Tea, but I prefer to blend my own with a mix of their other fine teas:
A large pot of Russian Caravan Tea:
3 tsp Assam or Yunnan tea
1 tsp Oolong
½ tsp of Lapsang Souchong
Teacakes can be made with any recipe for Shortbread Cookies. Add Walnuts for Russian Teacakes. For Martha Washington’s teacakes you may want to try two interesting variations: ground Brazil Nuts (which were George Washington’s favorite nuts) or the very distinctive Black Walnuts which were native to the Potomac River basin.
Your comments are always welcome. Email me here.