Talking about jam in tea is not just a discussion about a less common sweetener for the centuries-old hot beverage; the topic is a gateway into the history of several interesting and little known aspects of tea drinking itself!
Making life a little sweeter with jam in tea
Using a fruit jam or preserve is of course a way of adding some sweetness to counteract the bitterness that some tea has. Fans say that the fruit enhances the flavor of the tea and is not as overwhelmingly sweet as other potential sweeteners.
For the majority of tea drinkers white sugar is the product of choice to add to their steaming cup or mug. Granulated sugar is the most common form, but the more old fashioned sugar lumps or cubes are still available. One lump is roughly equivalent to a teaspoon of the grains.
There are a range of other options too such as honey or syrup, for instance. In some countries such as Japan and Thailand, that sweet zing is provided by condensed milk or evaporated milk and sugar. The more health conscious among us opt for stevia or xylitol now that other more chemical-based sugar substitutes have started to fall out of favor.
But—and this may come as a surprise—thick fruit jam as a tea sweetener is not a recent development; it has been around for centuries. It is just a new discovery for tea-lovers outside Eastern Europe, including those in the US.
It’s worth nothing that thinner jams are usually preferential, along with those that don’t have any seeds in them. However, some people will use just regular jam or jelly off the store shelves. Some folks will use jam from their garden, processed specially for tea. There’s really no right or wrong way. Even the thinner jams are still going to have a thicker consistency than syrup, but will dissolve and mix into the tea perfectly in just a moment or two.
Origins of this sweetener
So where and when did this practice begin? Most people associate tea with England and Asia. Formal tea ceremonies are an important part of Japanese and Chinese life and the UK has a long-established tradition of high tea and a “cuppa” pretty much any time of the day or night. Tea isn’t a drink one necessarily associates with Russia, but it should be.
Russian Tea Traditions (going beyond jam in tea)
Russians have been brewing and drinking tea for centuries with their “tea culture” dating back to the early 1600’s when the first gifts of tea were made to the Tsar and members of the nobility by the Chinese. Tea is in fact the national (non alcoholic) drink and at time of writing Russia is the fifth largest consumer of tea globally.
Tea is consumed black and there are several practices when it comes to sweetening the very strong brew Russians favor. Firstly, a piece of the very large sugar cubes found in Russian is held between the front teeth and the tea is drunk through it. Alternatively, pieces are dipped into the hot liquid and eaten. Finally—and very significantly—fruit jam or preserve is used in lieu of sugar. As an aside, jam is also used in a very similar way for sweetening tea in restaurants and homes in Azerbaijan.
As with the sugar, one can hold some jam in the mouth a sip the tea through it or the jam is added to the liquid. Typically raspberry, strawberry, and cherry jams or preserves are used with cherry being the most traditional. The jam is served in a bowl along with the other tea-making equipment.
Teaware for Russian Tea
In Europe and elsewhere in the West very early kettles were made from ceramics and later from tin and iron. The Mesopotamians were way ahead as they had bronze kettles with spouts as early as 3500 to 2000BC. Metals were of course favored as the water heated faster over an open fire when it was in metal than in other materials. Silver and pewter were used and copper was the metal of choice in the 19th century. In China kettles were made of porcelain.
The Russians adopted the samovar from the Mongols with who they traded for tea before routes opened to China. The Russian samovar was placed over coals and tea was both made and kept hot in these containers. The samovar, like the modern urn it probably inspired, has a faucet or tap from which the liquid is poured. This method of making and storing tea also explains why and how Russian tea is so very strong and therefore in need of unique types of sweetening!
Many of the old Samovars were extraordinarily ornate and very beautiful and today they have a great deal of aesthetic, monetary, and historic value. Along with these lovely objects the Russians also developed glasses for tea that were placed in metal holders with handles called podstakannik. The wealthy used holders plated with nickel, silver, or gold. Some holders are plain and others very ornate and incorporate delicate filigree work or engravings.
A Russian tea set included the Samovar, a delicate porcelain tea pot covered by a cloth, glasses in their podstakannik, a bowl of large sugar lumps and the all-important bowl of jam. Sometimes a guest is given his or her own bowl of fruit preserve. Modern samovars are electric and have a place on top where the tea pot full of ready-made tea sits to stay warm. The glasses and holders are also being replaced in some homes by china cups.
In the West tea drinkers have only used kettles. Initially they were placed on top of coals or suspended over fires. Later stove-top kettles were used. The first electric kettle arrived on the scene in the US and the UK in the 1890’s. The modern single-element variety launched as late as 1956 and it was this decade that also saw kettles manufactured from stainless steel. In recent years metal kettles have been replaced by plastic and glass ones in terms of popularity. Cordless electric kettles have the advantage that they switch off when the water boils.
We can decide whether we want loose leaves or bags, a stove-top kettle or an electric one, and a cup or a mug. There is also a dizzying range of teas—from traditional to eastern to herbal—to choose from and now we are also spoilt for choice when it comes to creamers (full cream, skimmed, semi-skimmed, soy, almond, coconut, condensed, and evaporated milks). And, yes, there are a host of sweeteners too.
The next time you make a pot or cup of your brew of choice how about adding jam to your tea? You might really love it. Go on; give it a try and when you do think of the Russians and their contribution to tea-drinking world-wide!