December 20, 2011 at 21:44 #6324
In a comment to a recent blog post written by @lahikmajoe – @thetearooms mentioned something called chifir, or Russian prison tea. It sounded interesting and I went in search of more information and it turns out, I’ve had it, or at least something similar.
Some years ago, when I was serving in the US Army, I was deployed to Kosovo near the end of the Kosovar war (the Kosovar Albanian rebels were still fighting cross-border attacks on the Serbians to the north – you might remember that the Serbians were not entirely innocent in this war). My platoon was assigned to a place affectionately called Outpost Terminator.
Terminator was the last stop on the border between Kosovo and Serbia and we were on the first line of attack in case the Serbians wanted to invade again. More importantly, what we did was try to stem the tide of Albanian rebels who were trying to get into the GSZ (Ground Safety Zone), which was a three mile, demilitarized buffer between Kosovo and Serbia.
Of course, Terminator and the village near it, Mucibaba, are not like any place on earth. It feels like the most remote mountain top, the snow is chest deep in the winter and the air is thin and cold all the time. It’s a lot like the remote mountains of Afghanistan that you see on the news these days.
We would spend a lot of time doing foot patrols in through the village and the valleys in the area to search for rebels running guns into the GSZ. One the local farmers, Metush, who had about 13 kids, 5 of whom were replacements for the 5 murdered by the Serbians some years before (his words, not mine, he was old and needed strong bodies to keep his farm working).
And it is Metush, in his high-mountain, two-room home who introduced to something not unlike chifir.
According to Wikipedia: Chifir’ is typically prepared with either two or three tablespoons of loose tea per person poured on top of the boiled water. It is brewed for 10-15 minutes without stirring – until the leaves drop to the bottom of the cup….Chifir’ is drunk without sugar, because it amplifies the effect to the point of being highly unpleasant (intense headaches and tachycardia) and can possibly lead to a cardiac arrest in case of a large overdose by someone with a weak heart.
It was the tachycardia in the Wikipedia description that struck me, because that is what we would sometimes feel after tea with Metush. When we would visit, Metush would sit on the floor in the center of the room, with his young sons around him, looking very much like a poor provencial partriarch. His teenage daughter, who was extraordinarily attractive, would enter the room with a tray of small, shot-glass sized, glasses of tea. It was dark, heavy stuff. The sugar would go round and the tradition was to use an entire teaspoon of sugar to stave off the bitterness of it. I was the only one who took it without sugar. Metush thought I was nuts.
His wife’s method for brewing tea? Just like chifir, boil the water, put alot of tea leaves in, add some more wood to the fire and then go do something else for awhile. This stuff was potent, boiled thick, hard and strong. Lapsang Souchong is for little girls compared to this stuff.
If you made it to 5 or more little glasses of that tea, you were ruined. We are talking about headaches, racing heart, light-headedness, and maybe even madness and blindness too (okay, I made that last part up). But this was tea and it really affected us.
I remember coming back from a 3 kilometer patrol and visit to Metush’s house – well, actually, it was more like 50 meters, because it was cold, dark, snowing and generally miserable (we called in our checkpoints for the patrol over the radio while sitting in Metush’s warm home while letting his boys play with the night vision goggles!) – anyhow, we came back and no one could sleep. A couple of us were rocking back and forth in agitation, I remember that I could feel my heart pounding in my chest like I has just climbed the mountain and not walked the short distance back to the outpost.
That tea was simply amazing stuff. Make some yourself, best done in a pot on the stove. Use a China black (just like Metush’s wife), boil that water, put in the tea, go do something else while it simmers….enjoy, and hold on to your seat!
December 21, 2011 at 07:23 #6325
This is such a great story Peter, and I’m seriously considering talking about it at length when I write about ‘chifir’. I’ve only had ‘intense headaches and tachycardia‘ when drinking coffee, but I guess if you prepare tea the way it’s mentioned, then you might get surprising results.
Am daydreaming about how much I’d enjoy being in the scenario you described. This isn’t the last you’ve heard of ‘chifir’. Not by a long shot.
December 21, 2011 at 16:53 #6327
@xavier – make some.
I think I’m going to this week, just to try it again. It is strong and bitter, hence the need for sugar – unless you are a hardy soul and want to really taste the tea! Honestly, I preferred it without sugar, I wanted the tea, not the super sweet syrup that my fellow soldiers were drinking.
December 23, 2011 at 14:27 #6329
“Lapsang Souchong is for little girls”
Politically correct people like myself might find that offensive.
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