Several months ago my husband and I took a quick trip to Cape Charles on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. We both felt we were long overdue for a vacation, but because that’s still a ways away, we wanted to clear our heads and spend a day somewhere close by. The Eastern Shore felt like an obvious choice. Easy, scenic, and less than an hour long drive and we were there. The weather cooperated and even though it was a little windy, the air was warm and – I always sense that in the spring – hopeful.
Driving through town my husband noticed a small, curious, and cozy looking little house with beautifully carved shutters and a sign that read “Dacha Tea”. We’ve been together long enough for him to know what that meant. “Dacha” means “summer house” in Russian – my first language. If your mind goes to the Hamptons luxurious homes and cottages – well, it’s not that kind of summer house. It is usually small, although with the option to spend the night, mostly used on summer weekends and it comes with a large piece of land (called “ogorod”) used for growing everything. And when I say everything, I mean it.
My grandparents bought their Dacha shortly after they got married and they built it brick by brick and planted rows and rows of produce. We had (are you ready for this?) potatoes, tomatoes, cabbages, eggplants, carrots, onions, cucumbers, garlic, radish, turnips, green beans, and beets – that’s just vegetables. There also were pears, black and red currant bushes, strawberries, raspberry bushes, cherry and apple trees and just about every type of herb possible. Naturally, all of it needed care and work and looking after from spring through harvest time at fall.
It was a place we all went as a family every weekend, a place where we as kids whined having to work outside, under the sun, rushing our parents and grandparents to let us go to the littler lake near by for a swim and a place where I’ve had some of my most memorable meals. We would bring our own water, thermoses full of tea or coffee, some kind of meat and bread. And the rest came from what grew there. Herbs grew like crazy and were always abundantly available.
Crusty bread, rubbed with freshly picked garlic had the most mouthwatering smell. Grandma once said that when she asked her late husband – my grandfather – to plant garlic, he did so at first carefully but then got tired and just threw a bunch of seeds all over. And so they grew – all over. Its tall, scallion like shoots were seen even among strawberries’ low lying leaves.
A quick salad with vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers, and radishes. They had the most amazing smell – if you buy farm grown vegetables, you know what I am talking about. Nobody used pesticides because they weren’t affordable.
A bowl of berries with a big dollop of fatty sour cream and sprinkled with sugar. To this day I have yet to find a yogurt that would taste as good as that combination did. Picking raspberries was fun, even though it’s time consuming. They grew in bushes, about 3-4 feet high and the rows were about 20 feet long. And we had 4 rows. You do the math. It also has pretty sharp thorns so we had to wear something with long sleeves, hats on our heads.
Usually we didn’t start actually picking them until we were 3/4 of the way done through one. Grandma always encouraged us to eat as much as we could to fill up on all those vitamins from these plump, juicy, sweet, warm from the sun berries. My cousin would go into one and I would go into the parallel one and that was our “girl talk time”. We were teenagers, so you just know it was a serious conversation. Interrupting ourselves to eat another beautiful, perfectly shaped berry.
Recalling these simple meals makes my mouth water. The most basic of ingredients had the ability to taste like the most luxurious meal.
So, as my mind raced through these memories, we pulled into Dacha Tea, got out of the car and stepped in. Immediately, we were transported into the coziest, most homey-feeling place on earth. And it’s not just all the little things that called out to me instantly – Russian dolls, hats, signs, linens. It is a sun filled, bright and warm little room with the smiling hostess greeting you like an old friend. Her name is Joan – Ivanka (Rusified version) and she had traveled extensively to the USSR for work (when it was that) and had since been fascinated with all things Russian.
Opening Dacha Tea House is her way to pursue her passion now that she is retired and she excels at it. Her Dacha is open Friday through Sunday (as of now) and we highly recommend a reservation. You can choose from a tea tasting with sweets, sweets and savories or even soups. You can also buy delicious blends of loose leaf teas to brew at home, which we did and definitely will do again on our next trip there.
Our memory tends to idealize things and to brush off the not-so-perfect moments. I am sure there were things that I didn’t care for – like having to get up early on a weekend, or take a bus across town, or working on taking care of all the produce under the hot sun. But even so, I am glad my memory registered only these bright, vivid, happy moments. It has been a long time since then and my Grandmother had to sell our Dacha after my Grandfather had died. There was just simply not enough hands to take care of it. Life went on.
Not all things are meant to last – like having the option to go to our Dacha, but memories are meant to remain in our hearts and minds forever, filed under a weathered, simple sign “childhood happiness”.
*This post is by no means endorsed or paid for by Dacha Tea House.