It would be a bit of a stretch to call Lydia Gautier's Tea the ultimate book on the topic. But in less than 200 pages she and photographer Jean-Francois Maliet have managed to put together an entertaining, informative, and lavishly illustrated overview of a very expansive subject.
One of the first things you're likely to notice about Tea is the quality of Maliet's photographs. I've reviewed a number of volumes from Chronicle Books and, in every case, have found the quality of the photography to be outstanding. Tea seems to take that level of quality and bump it up a notch or two, but perhaps it's just that the topic lends itself well to visual interpretation.
Which is not to say that Gautier's text suffers by comparison to the images, because it certainly doesn't. She opens up the work with a chapter on tea history that somehow feels substantial, in spite of the fact that multi-volume works have been written on this aspect of tea alone.
Gautier recounts, but doesn't comment on, the oft-repeated and ever-so-quaint notion that tea was discovered when leaves drifted on the wind into water that the Chinese emperor Shen Nong happened to be boiling. The first written reference to tea came in 200 BCE, in Emperor Shen Nong's Treatise on Medicinal Plants, a work that, though the title suggests otherwise, was not penned by the emperor.
The author proceeds to give a brief history of tea in China and then moves on to the countries to which it later spread (Japan, Middle/Near East, Central Asia, Britain, Sri Lanka, Africa, and so on), sketching out an encapsulated history of the drink in each country and giving the reader an idea of just how vast the world of tea really is.
Chapter two, The Alchemy of Tea, deals more with the tea plant itself and the impact upon it of such factors as latitude, altitude, seasons, and soil composition.
Here, as elsewhere, Gautier does a great job of striking a balance between being informative and understandable and provides a number of interesting reference aids. Among these, a breakdown of the six colors of tea (white, green, yellow, blue, red, black), Composition of a Fresh Tea Leaf - a chart that lists the many compounds found in tea, and the first really clear explanation I've read of that odd tea classification system, the one that results in acronyms like FTGFOP1.
Chapter three looks at various types of Tea Tasting. One of Gautier's interesting assertions here is that no tea should be prepared using water hotter than 203 degrees, a piece of advice which runs counter to the prevailing wisdom on the topic.
The gong fu style of preparation and the Japanese tea ceremony both come in for some attention here, as does the job of the professional tea taster and the mechanics of that process. Also, the role of each of the senses (yes, even hearing) in the process of tea tasting.
In chapter three, Tasting the 32 Grand Cru Teas. I wasn't familiar with this term and Gautier doesn't define it, but in the wine world it apparently designates a high quality vintage. Gautier's list comprises many of the better-known tea varieties and includes tasting notes and food pairing suggestions.
Chapter four, The Subtle Affinities of Tea, moves into more or less untrodden ground, taking a look at some of the cultural and historical similarities between tea, coffee and chocolate. Gautier also examines some of the affinities between tea and wine and even tea and perfume. Included here are several recipes which use tea and/or coffee and chocolate, as well as dishes designed to be paired with wine and/or tea.
Among the smattering of other recipes scattered throughout the book, Tea With Salted Butter, Maccha Cake, Masala Chai, and North Moroccan Mint Tea. Chapter five wraps it all up with the author's recommendations for some of the best places in the world to take tea.
Tea is an impressive work that deserves a place of honor on any tea lover's coffee table - if you'll pardon the expression.
William I. Lengeman III is a food writer, book reviewer and publisher of Tea Guy Speaks and Weird Eats.
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