Most of us have probably heard the expression all the tea in China. Which is quite a lot of tea, now that you mention it, given that China is the world’s number one producer of the stuff. But there was a time when all the tea in China and all the tea in the world were pretty much one and the same thing. Which is known as a monopoly and which could be inconvenient for any nation whose citizens had come to love tea with a great passion. A nation like Britain, for instance.
So it was that sometime in the early nineteenth century, the British finally grew tired of being at the mercy of the Chinese, who could pretty much dictate their terms when it came to selling tea. The British determined that if they could grow tea in India, where they’d already gained a foothold, it would be to their benefit.
So at some point during the middle of the century one Robert Fortune made his way to China, to gather up the secrets of tea production – and some actual tea plants – so that the British could start growing their own tea. It’s a mission that he chronicled in a work called A Journey to the Tea Countries of China, a work that was published in 1852.
A substantial volume, weighing in at almost 500 pages, it’s a sort of follow-up to an earlier book, Three Years Wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China. Before the latter journey is all said and done, Fortune, who resorts to such drastic (and sneaky) measures as disguising himself as a native, winds up with some twenty thousand tea plants for his pains.
While there’s quite a bit of information on tea provided throughout, Chapter XVI is particularly focused on the cultivation and production of tea, not only in China, but in America, Australia and various English gardens. It’s here that Fortune reveals his discovery that black and green tea are actually derived from the same plant, among other things. The final chapter finds the author traveling through India, taking a look at fledgling tea-growing operations there.
Which makes for a pretty interesting piece of work, not only for tea lovers, but for those more inclined to consider it as a travelogue or a work of history.
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