TeaGuide: Reviews and Ramblings

January 31, 2010

Book review: Tea – History, terroir, and flavour

Retail and wholesale.

Book cover photo courtesy of Camellia Sinensis. Additional stock photos.

If you’re like me, you already have a shelf full of tea books. So you don’t really need another one. But you’ll want this one.

In fact, Thé: Histoire, Terroirs, Saveurs might even replace a few of the tea books you already own. As the title suggests, this new (November, 2009) volume encompasses history, cultivation, processing, and varieties of tea; preparation and tasting guidelines; and chemical analyses; plus a selection of recipes that incorporate tea amongst their ingredients. Hard to believe that all of this – not to mention a profusion of photographs – fits into ~270 pages. But it does, and does it very nicely.

Thé is divided into four parts. The first section – From garden to cup – serves as a basic introduction to tea, describing how tea is grown, optimal growing conditions, plucking techniques, and the different processing methods employed to produce the various leaf “families.”

The second – and lengthiest – section explores the most well-known tea-growing countries, as well as a few places that may be less familiar to the casual tea drinker. China, Japan, Taiwan, and India tea cultivation, industry, and consumption are presented in detail, with an emphasis on the evolution of tea processing over the centuries to current equipment and methodology. For the growing regions of Sri Lanka, Nepal, Vietnam, and Africa, these topics are addressed more briefly. Chapters conclude by highlighting representative samplings of teas from each country or region, complete with photographs and tasting notes.

My favourite feature of this section – and what really sets this book apart – is the personal interviews with the people associated with the tea industry in each country. Some are garden managers, processors, or farmers; others are tasters, buyers, or researchers. Having had the good fortune over the years to meet many people in the retail and wholesale end – the consumption end – of the tea industry, it’s fascinating to put a face to people in the production end as well. I particularly relished the opportunity to “meet” the manager of Gopaldhara estate, the source of so many of the most enjoyable Darjeelings. Photographs in this section are especially varied and rich, including a wonderful portrait of a producer in Nantou sniffing the back of his tasting spoon. The iconic image of a true tea devotee fully engaged with an excellent oolong tea brought a smile of recognition to my face.

Part Three – From the cup to the plate – begins by looking at the many methods and accoutrements employed for preparing tea, and provides useful tasting guidelines. Then it segues into a collection of recipes for foods and drinks, each based on a particular type of tea. These recipes were created by a select group of respected chefs. Some of the dishes look rather interesting …

The final chapter examines in detail the chemical components of tea and the myriad of health benefits associated with each type of tea. I’ve never been much interested in “tea as medicine,” accepting any healthful properties to be simply perks to the sheer enjoyment of this enchanting beverage. The minutiae of measurements of one micro-nutrient or another makes my eyes glaze over. But if these types of details are your cup of tea … well, your cup will overflow.

Thé: Histoire, Terroirs, Saveurs was written by the “team” of tea experts associated with Camellia Sinensis, which operates two tea houses in Montréal and another in Québec City, as well as an online retail shop. My understanding is that each of the four partners specializes in the teas of a particular country or region; while reading the book I had the impression that the area-focused chapters were written by each of these different people according to their specialties.

As much as I enjoyed reading this book – and referring to it periodically since – there are a couple of formatting issues that will disappoint anyone who enjoys good books. First, the table of contents is located at the back of the book, following the index, credits, and bibliography, in the archaic European style. Inasmuch as the book was written, published, and printed in Canada in 2009, this arrangement strikes a rather odd note.

The other problem: The pages of this book, believe it or not, reside between pliable cardboard covers. Sorry to say, but they really detract from not only its beauty but its usability as well. While they are somewhat sturdier than standard paperback book covers, already – after one read-through and several reference look-ups – the covers no longer lie flat. The beautifully-textured pages filled with lush photographs flop when the book is open. And the folded-over covers have a tendency to open out and need to be refolded, which is rather annoying. Thé is the kind of book a tea-loving reader will want to showcase on their bookshelf, to enhance their library as well as to actively browse through. It is, simply put, shameful that its pages are not complemented (and protected) by a hard cover.

I do hope future editions will take these two objections into account.

At this time Thé is available only in a French-language edition, having been published in Québec (apparently underwritten by the Québecois provincial government). An English-language version is in the works, with an expected publication date later this year.

The book is available, both retail and wholesale, from Camellia Sinensis shops, both walk-in and online.

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