In the two years I've been publishing a Web site about tea I've learned enough about it to make me realize that I really don't know much about it. Which is a roundabout way of saying that tea is a vast subject.
This point was driven home recently when I read The Story of Tea, by Mary Lou and Robert Heiss. As "A Cultural History and Drinking Guide," it's got to rank right up there with the best of them. But there's really no way that such a work can do much more than scratch the surface of this topic.
"We hope to cut through the sometimes confusing prattle about tea," the authors say. "By providing in-depth information and understanding about processes that many people have written about but few have actually witnessed." A worthy goal, to be sure, and one they carry out with admirable thoroughness.
Early on the authors put forth the eminently sensible notion that "a simple cup of tea is far from a simple matter." It's a maxim that should be instated as the First Commandment of Tea.
The Story of Tea opens with A Brief History of Tea. It's a topic that could probably fill several thick volumes, but the authors put forth a nice summary in a mere 28 pages. I was especially intrigued by their account of the Boston Tea Party, which was more informative than those found in most other tea histories.
Chapter Two, The Life of a Tea Bush, takes a close look at the variations of Camellia sinensis, the plant that produces such a whopping number of tea varieties. The book really hits its stride in Chapter Three, which delves into the ever so critical manufacturing process that takes a tea leaf (and/or bud) and turns it into something we can ingest.
I've read bits and pieces of this information countless times, but the Heiss's pull it all together into one of the most in-depth discussions of tea manufacturing (at least in layperson's terms) that I've encountered. This chapter alone would have been worth the price of the book - if I'd had to pay for it, that is.
Especially impressive - not surprisingly - are the sections on Chinese tea, both in this chapter and the next, Journeying Along the Tea Trail. The latter also covers tea in Japan, Korea, India, Russia/Georgia, Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Indonesia, Nepal, Africa, and Vietnam.
The next chapter - The Encyclopedia of Tea - was interesting enough, but the book wouldn't really have suffered by its absence. An overview of some of the more popular teas, it almost seems redundant, in light of what was covered in the previous chapters.
Brewing the Perfect Cup looks at all of the many factors that must be in place to summon forth this elusive creature, from purchasing tea to teaware to the actual preparation and more. Tea Customs and Culture devotes a large chunk of its running time to China's Gongfu tea preparation style, as well as Japan's Chanoyu, more commonly known as the Japanese tea ceremony. It also looks at tea culture in Europe, the United States (a slim section), Russia, Tibet, and Morocco.
Chapter Eight takes on the issue of tea's much touted health benefits and concludes that...well, many of the studies are not quite conclusive. Also touched on here are the assorted and sundry myths that have sprung up over the years regarding tea's caffeine content.
From there, it's a chapter on Ethics in the Tea Trade (organic, Fair Trade). Things come to a close with a small, but interesting, selection of tea recipes. Savory Chinese Marbled Eggs, anyone? How about a White Tea Snow Sorbet?
Whether you're new to the world of tea or an old hand, you're likely to find something of interest in this well-researched and entertainingly presented book.
William I. Lengeman III is a food writer, book reviewer and publisher of Tea Guy Speaks.
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