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14 May, 2010 05:17

Tea party in Tula: samovars and pryaniki

Even though it is renowned for its arms history, the Russian city of Tula is also the producer of world-famous water boilers known as samovars, and a local specialty of ginger cake – the pryanik.

In Russia, whether you were having tea for two or for ten, pryaniki used to be the traditional accompaniment, and for some they still are.

The goodies were honey filled when they became a popular teatime treat in the 19th century. Present day pryaniki come with several sweet centers including condensed milk, chocolate and strawberries.

Before bakers prepare the surprise inside, craftsmen mould the outside to help them take shape.

“We use old wooden shapes which are made exclusively from the butt-ends of birch trees or pear trees,” said Nadezhda Trachuk from the Tula Museum of Spiced Cake.

“The butt-ends were cut very carefully into small plaques which were dried for five to 20 years in barns which protect them from the sun's rays,” she added.

Staraya Tula is Russia's oldest pryanik factory, founded in 1881. Here the ladies make the gingerbreads the way you would do it at home if you had an extremely large kitchen, kneading the dough and putting in all the fillings.

Now they tried to do it the more modern way with machinery, but it is said that it ruins the flavor of the finished product.

“You have to consider that the dough is alive. It soaks in the mood of the person making it, the person's spirit, and their heart,” Trachuk explains.

“That is why the cakes we make here are better than those we make using mass production. We make them from the heart,” she added.

The perfect accompaniment for the delicious cakes is tea, of course.

Tula is considered the center of samovar production. The water boilers themselves have become central to Russian tea drinking culture.

For generations a samovar in the home represented wealth. However, as they became more affordable they came to reflect a warm welcome to guests, who could share relaxing moments around the artistically crafted pieces.

Whether made in copper, brass or in some cases silver – it is clear how samovars have taken shape throughout the centuries at Tula's Samovar Museum.

Tula craftsmen and women are working hard to revive the samovar’s place in tea culture and at home.

“I think it contributes to the revival of the national character, national dignity, and the revival of Russia, after all, as well as to the revival of family traditions born centuries ago,” said Andrey Lazarev from the samovar producing plant.

The original coal-burning styles are beautiful but require more attention as you have to add wood chips, paper and pine cones, and then repeat to get the fire going.

Modern day Russians still use samovars, but with fewer steps. You can still get the traditional coal burning models. However, electrical ones are more popular as they are more convenient and safer for apartment living. Whether you have a newer model or a more traditional one, samovars are still a symbol of Russian hospitality.