Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Off the Shelf: 'For All the Tea in China'

Courtesy of
Melissa and I enjoy tea a lot. We love making sun tea in the summer and we enjoy a good cup every now and then. That's why I decided to read "For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed the World" (by author Sarah Rose) when I saw it at the library.

Really, the book is about Robert Fortune, an English explorer who was tapped to export tea and tea-making procedures from China to then England-held India, where English companies could reproduce the techniques and export the tea for mass profit.

Fortune was sent to China in 1848, and as part of his trip, he had to go undercover as a Chinese man past territories where foreigners were forbidden. He had to hire servants to assist him and guides to lead him.

The East India Company sent him and offered an enticing deal: The company wanted only the tea; Fortune could keep anything else he came across, including grasses, seeds, seedlings, flowers, fruits and ferns.

After months in China collecting tea samples and tea-making techniques, Fortune still had to overcome the problem of shipping fresh products on the ocean, where they would remain for months. He eventually thought he had found a solution to that problem and sent the first shipment to India and the Himalayas, where the plants would be grown.

Part way there, another freelancer for the East India Company confirmed that the plants looked well and had made the months-long journey. But by the time the plants arrived in the Himalayan stop, they had been decimated, the result of a worker opening the supplies before they had reached their destination.

A small fraction of the plants made it, but in poor shape, and the rest were dead, resulting in the devastating loss of a year of work by Fortune.

Despite the setback, he was eventually able to successfully transport enough tea plants and techniques from China to India to de-monopolize China's tea production.

One thing I didn't know? That the first cup of tea was for demons or "enemies." That's because the tea was often processed on the ground, allowing dust and other particles into the tea.

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