Over the course of the years that I’ve been writing about tea I’ve had the good fortune to review quite a few books on the topic. While many of them were very entertaining and informative, with a few notable exceptions they weren’t necessarily the kind of page turners that you’d be likely to sit down and read from cover to cover.
One of those exceptions would be Jason Goodwin’s The Gunpowder Gardens: Travels through India and China in Search of Tea. It’s a book that’s actually been around for a little more than two decades, but which I had the pleasure of catching up with only recently. It was issued not long ago in a Kindle edition and the author was kind enough to send along a paperback copy for review.
Goodwin was inspired to write the book by his grandparents, one set of whom spent a considerable amount of time in China and the others in India. Coincidentally, these were, and still are, the world’s most important tea producing and trading countries. Not to mention the fact that tea and tea culture were essentially born and raised in China.
Which is where Goodwin begins his journey, mixing roughly equals parts of history with Theroux-type travel narrative. After a brief foray in Hong Kong, he moves on to Canton, which was apparently a key trading port for tea at one time. Though I’ve read my fair share of tea history the author’s accounts of how the tea business worked in and around Canton went above and beyond in actually helping to bring things to life for me.
From Canton the author moves to other important Chinese tea trading ports, such as Amoy, whose dialect he claims gave the world the word “te,”a word that was slightly modified to the one so many of us use today. Next on the agenda is a visit to Fuzhou, where the narrative takes a brief detour to examine the arcane and bafflingly complex issue of tea naming conventions.
From here, there’s a brief interlude to discuss the Boston Tea Party and then on to India, the world’s other major tea producer. Goodwin devotes a chapter to Calcutta (now Kolkata), a major tea trading city, another on the premium tea producing region of Darjeeling, and one on various other less well known tea regions in India. Things wrap up with a chapter on London, a major tea industry city in its own right. Also worth noting, a brief glossary which contained a surprising number of tea-related terms I’ve never even heard of.
If you haven’t guessed already I’d rank this one as worth a look.
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