Tea Writings

A blog about tea from the desk of Cecilia Tan

Idleness and Industry

June 05, 2010 By: ctan Category: Tea Books, Tea Musings

It’s one of life’s inherent paradoxes–isn’t it?–that we associate sipping a cup of tea with slowing down and taking a moment to relax, and yet the tea trade is one of the most labor intensive of all industries. I have now had the pleasure of reading Sarah Rose’s For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History and so can say that this has been true for over a century.

The tea industry would never again be the same in the wake of the massive global changes brought about by British Empire-building. The shift of the English taste from green to black tea and the fate of India and the East India Company (the world’s first multinational corporation) hinged on the clandestine expeditions of botanist Robert Fortune. He traveled into remote areas of China where no white man had ever gone in order to unlock the secrets of Chinese tea production, so that the British colonies in India could seed massive plantations to break the Chinese monopoly.

The book and the historical tale it recounts is fascinating, but I only had the leisure to read it thanks to an unexpected afternoon free while visiting the city of New Orleans. In my rush-rush-rush life often my only break is the pause to allow the water to boil, the leaves to steep, but I ended up with several hours to laze about in bed and savor the book.*

Interestingly enough, the more things change, though, the more they stay the same. Although Britain broke the Chinese monopoly and transformed the way the Western Hemisphere consumed tea, these days, the most highly regarded teas still come from the remote and closely guarded areas of China. One need spend only a few minutes on the website of Roy Fong, the Imperial Tea Court of San Francisco, to realize the scope of it. Just today a package of sample teas for review arrived in the mail from the Canton Tea Company.

Canton Tea Company is, curiously enough, based in the United Kingdom. Even more curious, they seem to be the equivalent of one of those small wine import shops, a “mom & pop” shop run by Jennifer Wood and Edgar Thoemmes. Wood founded the company in 2007 and Thoemmes came along last year, and they are already snagging awards for some of their exclusives. ( I’m drinking the silver needle they sent at this moment and the first impression is very favorable.) I’ll be tasting and writing about their teas soon–for now I imagine that life at Canton Tea Co. must be much like it is in my own small business, which is to say hectic but fueled with passion.

And enriched with tea, and all the culture and history that goes with it.

*Thanks to R. for the book!

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  1. Sarah Rose · The World Loves Tea 12 06 10

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