TEA: History, Terroirs, Varieties
By Kevin Gascoyne, Francois Marchand, Jasmin Desharnais, and Hugo Americi (Firefly Books, 2011)
The reference work we’ve been waiting for has arrived: a comprehensive, but not-too-weighty, one-volume coverage of the world’s teas, abundantly and beautifully illustrated with photos of exceptional quality, fascinating graphs, and fairly good maps. The organization of this huge body of factual material will make students most grateful.
Not every tea lover is a tea student, let us admit. It is perfectly possible to carry on a lifetime love affair with the leaf and never quite know what one is drinking—indeed, this included most of us before America’s tea renaissance dawned. Two decades ago, the only tea term most Americans had heard of was Orange Pekoe. A fancy tea—usually a British brand like Fortnum & Mason—might carry evocative labels like Darjeeling or Keemun, but we seldom thought of them as place names or wondered where they were. Many, probably most, tea lovers are like this still and know only that they love the way it makes them feel. But just look at what they’re missing—it’s right here in this beautifully illustrated book, laid out in intelligible fashion for the tea student.
The authors were wise to give history the least attention (after 30 years in the field, I know how enticingly deep that mire can be). They provide the minimum background needed to set the stage, so to speak, for the main event. Japan’s tea history is given two pages and Japanese tea masters one. These preface 30 pages of in-depth information on Japan’s tea industry and trade, growing districts, gardens and plant varietals, processing methods, manners of tea preparation, matters of nomenclature, and, finally, detailed tasting notes on eight major Japanese tea types, whose delicate green-tea liquors are accurately colored and plainly distinguishable in accompanying photos. What a feat!
A section titled From One Terroir to Another is the heart of the book, using the French word terroir as we in the United States would use origin to designate source. With tea, as with wine, terroir means not just birthplace but the soil itself in which the plants are rooted and from which their inmost character comes. It is the better word to use, I think. And this section is a one-stop shop full of relevant tea knowledge as succinct and accessible as that of any encyclopedia. Here, then, as far as possible, are tea’s charm and mystery analyzed and laid bare, its outward aspects precisely described and depicted.
As with any ambitious work, it is always easy to quibble, and it is considered the reviewer’s responsibility to do so. Very well: The index, an essential in books like this, might have been improved. Sri Lanka receives unjustly short shrift, but then Viet Nam and Nepal are included. The presentation of China tea is clear and simple as water itself—no small accomplishment.
Can a book be overly ambitious and be faulted for trying to be all things to all people? The dozen or so recipes for cooking with tea look delicious, but don’t we have invaluable cookbooks by Cynthia Gold and Joanna Pruess for that? In fairness, it would be hard to improve on the sections on tea growing and manufacture or tea and health, veritable thickets of information here organized, illustrated, and made eminently comprehensible for us.
The multiple authors are the founding partners of Montreal’s increasingly well known Camellia Sinensis Tea House: Kevin Gascoyne, François Marchand, Jasmin Desharnais, and Hugo Americi. Every year these four travel to the top tea-producing countries, each specializing in a different region and getting to know producers responsible for superior teas. Their amazing tea menu is available online at camellia-sinensis.com. Principal writing credit seems to go to their protégé and apprentice, Jonathan Racine. His English, unlike many another tea books’, does not give evidence of being composed in French or Chinese and does credit to young Racine’s namesake, the immortal dramatist and poet.
Having served the cause of tea around the world for three decades, James Norwood Pratt is a highly regarded teacher and speaker and a recognized authority on tea and tea lore. His eponymous Tea Dictionary was published in 2010. For more information, visit jamesnorwoodpratt.com. He and his wife, Valerie, live in San Francisco.