Drinking tea is a human ritual that has spread to all points of the globe from its Eastern origins. By the shores of the Caspian, where they grow Lankaran tea, it has a tradition all of its own
Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea,” wrote the English playwright and novelist Henry Fielding in 1728. In Baku they would beg to differ, for Azerbaijanis choose to sweeten their tea with jam. It’s not that sugar – usually in lump form – is proscribed, but that jam is preferred for its flavour as well as its sweetness. Indeed it’s the presence of soft-set preserves – made from mulberries, quince, rose petals, walnuts, apricots, or cherries (ideally white ones) – at an Azerbaijani tea ceremony that elevates the enjoyment of tea from the ordinary to the gourmet.
The tea and jam are actually not mixed together. A little spoonful of jam is put in the mouth, and then the tea is sipped so that the hot liquid melts the jam, producing a drink akin to a very superior, silkily smooth fruit tea. In the absence of jam, there is of course lemon and sugar to temper the tannins. And sometimes you’ll see someone put a sugar cube in their mouth in place of jam, and drink the tea through it.
Tea regularly punctuates the day in Azerbaijan. It’s what concludes business meetings and meals. It encourages customers to come to a decision in shops. Traditionally it would signal the outcome of negotiations between matchmakers when brokering marriages (the sweeter the tea, the likelier it is there will be a wedding). It punctuates the narrative of Kurban Said’s great East-meets-West, love-across-the-divide novel Ali and Nino (1937), set in Baku, not only in its capacity as a fact of daily life, but to emphasize the difference between the tea-drinking Azerbaijanis and the wine-drinking Georgians.
It is the very raison d’etre of the çay khana or tea house, where men (and it is mostly men in these places) gather to talk or play nard, the local version of backgammon. Tea may only have been cultivated in Azerbaijan on a major scale since the 1930s, but in light of its location on the Silk Route, its tea culture is as old as Baku’s ancient atmospheric caravanserais.
Visit someone’s home, and whatever the time of day, you will surely be offered tea, alongside bowls of dried fruits and nuts. Very possibly you will also be offered sweet pastries such as pakhlava, or shekerbura, little semicircles or crescents filled with ground nuts, almonds, hazelnuts or walnuts that were once served only on holidays such as Novruz, but are increasingly available year-round.
Coming in a beautifully decorated box, the best-known premium brand of Azerbaijani tea is Azerçay’s Buket Dogma Çay, a large-leaf black variety grown in the sub-tropical Lankaran and Astara regions in the far south of the country. Producing a clear garnet-red infusion, this tea is subtly enhanced with bergamot oil, like the popular English blend Earl Grey. Apart from that, the two teas have little in common when it comes to taste.
In Azerbaijan, tea may be additionally flavoured with herbs or spices as it is poured. As the tea brews, another pot is filled with a couple of spoonfuls of thyme, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, mint or perhaps rose petals and topped up with boiling water. When both have had sufficient time to infuse – for seven or eight minutes, on a little stand over a tealight to ensure the tea stays hot – each is poured, just a centimetre or so, into a glass as they are made strong and then topped up with boiling water from the urn or samovar.
There is something infinitely pleasing, too, about the glass or armud (literally “pear-shaped”) in which tea is served, though with its nipped-in waist, it’s somehow more reminiscent of a thistle. Whatever its inspiration, it is an ingenious design because it means that however hot the tea in the bulb at the bottom, the rim remains cool enough to hold and to put to one’s lips. (The old cut glasses in silver holders – podstakanchiki in Russian, possibly the only language with a specific word for them – seem to have died with the Soviet Union.)
There’s a saying in Azerbaijan – “çay nedir, say nedir” – meaning “when drinking tea, don’t count the cups”. But then why would you? The glasses are small, and their contents abound in health-boosting antioxidants. But above all, the robust but smooth aromatic, almost vanilla-like flavour of Azerbaijani tea, especially Buket, is delicious – with or without love or scandal, or even jam.
This story appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Baku magazine.