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January 07, 2010


A few weeks ago I ventured into a grocery that I had passed by hundreds of times in the past without my curiosity the least bit piqued, having previously assumed that it would not have anything of interest on its shelves. But for whatever reason, on this day I decided I needed to investigate, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that among its wide array of foodstuffs it held a large section of Russian items, from loaves of hearty rye bread to tins of black caviar from the Caspian Sea to Russian wines — and even better, Georgian wines, which are the wines that Russians who care about wine are more likely to drink, at least they were before the 2006 embargo, when they could still get them. (Note: I believe that it was the Russian embargo against wine from Georgia which resulted in the sudden increase in availability of Georgian wines in the U.S. Georgia needed to expand its markets to make up for the loss of its biggest consumer.)

Of particular interest, accompanying these other Russian food and drink items was a selection of teas. The array was not huge, but it appeared to provide some valuable insight into what Russians in the United States would purchase in their attempts to recapture some of the flavor of Mother Russia. These particular teas were not the expensive, refined teas that members of the Russian aristocracy would have poured out of blue and white Lomonosov “Cobalt” teapots. These were teas of the proletariat – inexpensive and convenient, most of them manufactured by a company called “Czar Nikolas II.” Although I later found out that the company also sells one-pound bags of loose tea, this particular store only sells the company’s boxes of tea bags, in varieties very much geared to the Russian palate. Along with basic green and black teas, they sell “Valentine,” which is flavored with rose petals and safflower and a bergamot-scented tea similar to Earl Grey, and “Nostalgia,” which is Ceylon tea with the addition of black currant leaves and strawberry leaves.

To get an idea of a similar, but more extensive selection, take a look through the Russian teas available through Skazka Russian Food.

It might seem a little surprising that I’d be attracted to a tea that is both flavored with non-tea ingredients and, quelle horreur!, in tea bags, but my expectation was to investigate commonly available Russian teas, not to discover the most exquisite and sublime tea taste imaginable. Plus, I have no resistance whatsoever to items that fascinate me and also happen to bear the name of my favorite film – Nostalghia (Ностальгия), by the visionary director Andrei Tarkovsky – thus the compulsion was strong to buy a box of the Nostalgia tea, so I did.

I was intrigued by the notion of the addition of currant and strawberry leaves to tea. These were two flavors I had not experienced before, but I didn’t think they’d be fruity or sweet. From what I already knew about Russian cuisine and the types of flavors that appeal to my palate, I expected this tea to be one I would like, in spite of it being so very different from the pure-leaf teas I drink the rest of the time and I was not disappointed. The non-tea taste is hard to describe. I can’t think of a more familiar flavor to use to describe what it tastes like by analogy. Imagining the flavors of currants and strawberries, but slightly pungent and bitter and without any sweetness, ought to provide an approximation of what this tea tastes like. It’s kind of hard to talk about it as tea since the dominant scents and flavors are not tea, but that’s to be expected. As one would expect, the Ceylon black tea in this tea would be pretty substandard on its own, but that’s not important. Why would anyone add weird dominant non-tea flavors to good tasting teas in the first place?

I don’t have any Russian grandmothers to ask whether they like this tea or not, but it certainly fits my definition of a very Russian character. Czar Nikolas II’s “Premium Nostalgia” tea tastes like Russian tea because it is made for consumption by Russians.

“I wanted to make a film about Russian nostalgia—about that state of mind peculiar to our nation which affects Russians who are far from their native land. I saw this almost as a patriotic duty in my understanding of the concept. I wanted the film to be about the fatal attachment of Russians to their national roots, their past, their culture, their native places, their families and friends; an attachment which they carry with them all their lives, regardless of where destiny may fling them. Russians are seldom able to adapt easily, to come to terms with a new way of life. The entire history of Russian emigration bears out the Western view that ‘Russians are bad emigrants’; everyone knows their tragic incapacity to be assimilated, the clumsy ineptitude of their efforts to adopt to an alien life-style. How could I have imagined, as I was making Nostalgia that the stifling sense of longing that fills the screen space of that film was to becone my lot for the rest of my life; that from now until the end of my days I would bear the painful malady within myself?”

– Andrei Tarkovsky, from his book “Sculpting in Time”

After doing some additional reading in preparation for writing about the tea, especially the passage by Tarkovsky above, I became aware of how appropriate it was for a Russian tea in an unassuming suburban grocery store in the United States to be called “Nostalgia.” The signs of an influx of Russian culture into the area are there, from older indicators like the two beautiful Russian Orthodox churches in Seattle, to more recent signs, like the ease of finding Russian language as an option in local ATMs. But there aren’t restaurants or neighborhoods or many of the more blatant signs visible here, so I only notice the signs when I seek to spot them. I have fantasies of a Russian teahouse opening up with a running loop of Eisenstein films in one room and Stravinsky playing in the background, with banks of bronze samovars holding teapots of Keemun perched on top, but until then I can console myself with strong cups of cheap Russian tea.

(The image above is a still from Nostalghia.)

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