Pros: A very interesting topic and background subject.
Cons: A little too breezy and incomplete for my tastes.
One of my favourite topics to read about is culinary history -- where and how did we get to have a certain dish to eat or drink? And one of my favourite things is Tea, that most blessed drink that can both enliven and soothe me, and something for which I cannot live without.
In For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History, author Sarah Rose looks at the mission that Robert Fortune undertook in the late 1840's to learn the secrets of tea. At the time, the British Empire and the Chinese were embroiled in the Opium wars, brought on by a trade imbalance. For decades, the British East India Company -- The Honourable Company, as it had been nicknamed -- had been trading silver to the Chinese for tea. And for the Company, silver was a tricky commodity to obtain, and the Chinese had the upper hand in the trade. But once opium was introduced to the Chinese market, the balance abruptly shifted -- eventually one of every three Chinese would be addicted to some form of opium, and the economy was spiraling out of control, with political unrest in its wake. The Chinese Emperor in turn threatened to shut off the tea trade if the British didn't stop the opium, and suddenly, the British were scrambling for a new source of tea so that it would not matter if they traded with China or not.
But the problem was that no one knew exactly what tea was. It was thought that green and black tea came from different species of plants, and the method of drying and curing the plant was unknown to westerners -- and jealousy guarded by the Chinese to keep the monopoly in its own hands. If Britain was going to get its hands on tea plants of its own to cultivate, they would have to resort to some underhand dealings.
Enter Robert Fortune. He was an energetic botanist and amateur scientist who had worked in the trading centres in China, and eagerly took on the challenge of discovering the origin and methods of tea. He employed two Chinese men as his servants, disguised himself as a mandarin, and with some money, and not nearly enough skill at speaking Chinese, he set off to distant mountains to find the source of tea.
It didn't turn out the way that it was supposed to. Fortune thought that it would be easy for him to find the plants and the processing technology. What he got was were plenty of adventures that did not end once he shipped his seedlings to India. There, it was incompetence, lack of knowledge and sheer arrogance that destroyed the seeds and fledgling plants and it seemed that Robert Fortune's hard work was for nothing...
I had known that the British quest for tea was tied into the use of opium before reading this book, but little beyond that. This story helped to fill in many of the blanks, and gave me new insight to the struggle to fill the ever-growing demand for tea in the English world. Eventually, tea would be grown quite successfully in India and Sri Lanka, giving the world some of the best tasting teas to be found, but it was hardly an easy task.
Ms Rose's writing here is clear and fast paced. At times it was a bit too fast paced, and the story jumped about in time and place from China to India, without a lot of background being given; that's the only real fault with this narrative, along with not having a map to give me an idea of where these various tea growing regions were. Still, there's plenty of excitement here to keep the reader's interest and the story itself is compelling to read.
For those who are interested in the history of tea, or how economics can shape what we eat and drink, I can recommend this one. It's a fascinating story, and I suspect that there is more here than meets the eye -- I just wish the author had given a bit more space to it.
Three and a half stars rounded up to four, recommended.
For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History
2010; Viking Books, Penguin Group