Tea became available in Russia in the 17th century, brought by the caravans of traders on camels who made the cross-continent journey from China. This journey took almost an entire year to complete, resulting in tea being quite expensive and only available to the aristocratic class for many years. Everything changed in 1880 when the Siberian Railroad was opened, and the trip could now be done in just two short months. Tea became widely available, and was embraced by all social classes.
Around this same time, the samovar was introduced in Russia, and became the centerpiece of any Russian household, rich or poor.The samovar was a large decorative urn made from copper or silver, that could hold a large quantity of water. An inside chamber was heated with coals and kept the water hot and bubbling all day long, so that tea could be prepared on a moment’s notice. On top of the samovar, a small teapot rested and was kept warm, containing a very strongly brewed concentrate of tea called Zavarka. When one desired a cup of tea, they could immediately prepare it to their liking by pouring out a small amount of the zavarka, and diluting it with hot water from a spigot on the samovar. This invention, of Chinese origin, soon came to be recognized as the symbol of Russian hospitality. If unexpected guests were to arrive in a Russian home, they could count on being served tea quickly thereafter. Russians typically drink it black, but hosts will offer milk and sugar, as well as an accompanying snack. Serving zavarka without cookies, crackers or some other munchable is to serve it "naked" and is considered wildly rude.
Russian tastes in tea are quite unique compared to other countries. The concentrated tea found in the samovar’s teapot can be green, but is more often black tea from India or Sri Lanka. Russians will often use a blend of teas which has been smoked to varying degrees. Some believe this to be a taste that developed due to the Russian climate or local gastronomy, while others have the more romantic notion that this smoked tea is a reminder of the old caravan tea, which would become slightly smoked simply by the repeated exposure to campfires along the route. In fact, many tea companies have created smokey blends which are often called “Russian Caravan Tea.” The preference for smokey tea would seem an odd combination with sweets, but the traditional way of drinking tea in Russia is to sip the tea through a sugar cube in the mouth, or by stirring a spoon of homemade jam into the cup before drinking. However it is prepared by the individual, tea can be found in any household and is enjoyed throughout the day.