An engaging and offbeat exploration of the tea trade by English travel-writer Goodwin, whose two grandmothers–Granny Eileen with her tea caddy from India, filled with Keemun and Lapsang Souchong; Granny Goodwin with her tea caddy from China, filled with Assam and Darjeeling–gave him an early introduction to the ritual and romance of tea. Kirkus Review
What John McPhee did for oranges and more recently John Feltwell did for silk, Goodwin has done for tea in a book that is at once history, curious lore, and brilliant travel writing. Library Journal Review
A fruity, discursive, always beguiling book spiced with jokes, allusions, fashion tips and travel notes. Sunday Telegraph
Full of fascination. Sunday Times
An exceptional travel book but also a lively, humorous account of the refreshing herb, from bush to teacup. The Observer
The New York Times, by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, in full:
Was it that in his boyhood dreams of glory he imagined himself to be one Captain Hawkeye (until spectacles were prescribed), who “owed a lot to a cherished line of English traders and pirates”? Or was it simply because among his two grandmothers’ cluttered possessions he had found Chinese tea caddies from their British imperial pasts?
Whatever the cause, readers are fortunate. For a young English travel writer named Jason Goodwin has been inspired by something in his past to devote his funny, evocative first book to the history and geography of tea. After all, tea is a fluid that one might take for granted these days, but a Zen myth holds it to have originated when a monk frustrated by his sleepiness tore off his eyebrows and cast them on the ground, whereupon the first tea bushes sprang up to provide him with a stimulant. And a 19th-century writer in the Edinburgh Review compared tea to nothing less than the truth: “suspected at first, though very palatable to those who had courage to taste it.”
In fact one takes tea so for granted that instantly upon thinking about it one encounters one’s ignorance: In what sort of soil does it grow? How is it processed for market? Is there a system for grading it? Why can’t one grow it in the garden?
But Mr. Goodwin, a charming tease, withholds instant gratification. Instant of cutting straight to the cha (as tea is called in Chinese), he first exercises his skill at evoking a sense of place. “In Hong Kong the inanimate do business along with the quick. Each ramp on a concrete flight of steps proclaims the merit of a product; dustbins call your attention to the Hong Kong Bank; an enormous Marlboro cowboy hangs tough on the flank of a high-rise — as you come close, he shyly disintegrates into a swirl of meaningless squiggles but recomposes himself, as moody as ever, as you walk away.”
Or he deftly dissolves the present into the past, for instance by riding the Hong Kong-Canton hydrofoil and then imagining what it must have been like for ships of the East India Company to travel in and out of the Pearl River estuary at the height of the tea trade 200 years ago.
Or he sums up Chinese history in a few brush strokes: “China’s concern through millennia has been to keep floods and barbarians controlled. The Great Wall of China was like a dam to hold back people.”
But one wants him to get on with it. How many kinds of tea are there? What is the difference between the best and the worst?
All in good time, gentle reader. As Professor Zhuang, chairman of the Fujian Tea Society, explained to the author when asked about classifying teas: “There is a system. It makes about 8,000 distinctions. Perhaps there are more exceptions to the system than distinctions within it. I have 73 years in tea, but I do not know the system. . . . In the West you use an alphabet. In China we learn characters. It is the same with tea.”
By and by one gets the point. Mr. Goodwin is not going to explain tea. It is far too complex a subject to systematize. When the Japanese seized Taiwan in 1895 and rationalized the business of buying tea, they came up with the following grades: “Standard, Fully Standard, Standard to Good, On Good, Good Leaf, Good, Fully Good, Good Up, Good to Superior, Fully Superior, Superior Up, Superior to Fine, On Fine, Fine, Fine Up, Fine to Finest, Finest to Choice, Choice, Strict Superior, Choicest and Fancy.” One could get confused.
What Mr. Goodwin has in mind is to reveal the process of growing, preparing and marketing tea in its natural setting. So we visit auctions and tea gardens, learn about the agony of the leaves and the twist, witness the process of fermentation and drying.
And then comes the climactic moment when Armajeet Sing, a Darjeeling broker, bends over the tasting table of a tea-garden manager named Navim. “Armajeet’s nose descended on the volcano. It was a historic nose, a Persian nose, passed down from Zoroastrian priests to hawking desert lords, from hawkers to warriors and from warriors to the invaders who rode into the desert of Rajasthan. It was quite large but straight and slim; the skin was fine and very pale over a slender bridge, with nostrils that might have been turned in Cremona. It flared over the volcano, burrowed in and re-emerged with a scattering of wet tea-leaves adhering to its tip, which trembled slightly over the verdict. The small mustache was a discreet cushion for the instrument.
“Armajeet straightened up. Navim stooped anxiously.
” ‘Very useful,’ said the Nose. For a brief moment I thought I saw Navim actually smile.”
Mr. Goodwin ends on an offbeat note. He describes the sad fate of the clipper ship Cutty Sark, which was built in 1869 for speed but arrived on the scene just as the age of steam began and was “petrified by history.” Like Mr. Goodwin’s fantasy Captain Hawkeye, the Cutty Sark came too late to trade tea.
But if ship and swashbuckler are ossified, Mr. Goodwin’s imagination stays vibrant. It has summoned up all the tea in China and India. And made one thirst for a spicy cup of the brew.