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The Book of Tea: Revised and Updated Edition - Review

by Alain Stella, et. al.

The Book of Tea is divided into three sections, including Tea Gardens by Alain Stella, Time for tea by Gilles Brochard and The Taste of Tea by Catherine Donzel

When it comes to the unique subculture founded on tea, there can be no chicken-and-egg argument. Without tea—without the actual fragrant leaf—so many beautiful rituals simply would not exist. This unassuming little plant has inspired a wealth of rites around the world. Brits apparently can’t make it through the day without their afternoon tipple, while the Japanese actually have masters to guide their ceremonies. Moroccans drink this beverage with mint from little glasses, and Russians dispense theirs out of Samovars. But no matter how diverse the trappings, one thing is consistent no matter which country you’re in: tea drinkers have an unshakable passion. And it is this passion that provides a unifying theme in The Book of Tea.

With a chatty, meandering preface by the quintessentially English Anthony Burgess—you’ll find plenty of personal commentary and asides—The Book of Tea roams through the role that tea plays in our lives, pausing along the way to take in such aspects as cultivation, preparation and presentation. While Burgess is conversational in style, the rest of the book feels more encyclopedic. This isn’t to say that it’s boring; it would certainly be rated one of the best-illustrated encyclopedias around. But while the text is interesting and informative, it’s the pictures that hold your attention, particularly the archival photographs, with their depictions of WWI soldiers drinking tea in a bombed out room in London or a tea dealer lingering at his stand in late 19th-century Afghanistan.

The Book of Tea is essentially divided up into three main parts: “Tea Gardens,” by Alain Stella; “Time for Tea,” by Gilles Brochard; and “The Taste of Tea,” by Catherine Donzel. At the back is a small reference section, with a dictionary of tea types, some choice recipes and a selective guide to tearooms and shops in Paris, London and a few major U.S. cities. You can read through the book in a linear fashion, or—a nice touch—you can open it to any page and pick up an interesting tidbit. Rather than being accompanied by a simple caption, each photo or illustration is matched with an anecdote. For example, a photo of a woman picking tea in Bangladesh is paired with, “Plucking is a crucial operation that determines the ultimate quality of the brew. It requires a great deal of dexterity and care. The highest grade of top-quality tea is the product of a ‘fine plucking’ in which only the terminal leaf-bud and first two leaves are picked.” Heady stuff for us tea lovers.

Overall, The Book of Tea is a gem for tea-philes. It is visually appealing. It is educational. It will look great on your coffee table. And it’s just the sort of tome to sit down with and peruse over a cup of...well, Earl Grey or Genmaicha, depending on where you live.

Reviewed by Kim Fay

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(Updated: 12/07/12 SG)

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