In her first book, food and travel journalist Sarah Rose reveals how your cup of Earl Grey has a much livelier background than you probably knew.
"For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History" focuses on the momentous three-year (1848-1851) expedition through China of the Scottish botanist and gardener Robert Fortune.
This was his second trip to China, but his first funded by the large and powerful East India Company. His mission: to track down and collect high-quality tea plants and transport them to the Himalayas of British India (far more difficult a task back then than one might think), and ultimately begin to grow and process tea there, cutting out England's dependence on China for tea. Of course, China was bound not to be keen on England appropriating this extremely profitable product and its hitherto undisclosed manufacturing process, so Fortune had to carry out his business on the sly.
The content of "For All the Tea" alternates between detailed narratives about Fortune's journeys and work, and illuminating departures into historical and cultural context. In addition to tea-related history and lore, these include refreshers on such events as the Taiping Rebellion and the First Opium War, an overview of Victorian England's obsession with gardening, and background on the singular East India Company itself. Throughout, the book is very readable, and its chronology is clear, with chapters being headed with a location and a year.
Interestingly, the passages of historical and cultural context tend to be more engrossing than the embellished narratives. Rose's frequent, somewhat lengthy attempts to illustrate some of the drama and excitement that Fortune experienced with his traveling party fall a little flat, as we mostly know how things will end; that is, Fortune won't get killed by those pirates, and even if all of his coolies did disappear overnight, things will still generally work out. Additionally, in a work of nonfiction, it can be confusing to come across lines like "The light turned gray around them as the sun sank from view" or "His chest expanded in the brisk November air."
Even the book's publicity materials, which try to pump it up by referring to Fortune as "the Indiana Jones of Tea," reflect some concern as to whether a book about the history of tea could be sufficiently interesting. Rose thoroughly (though sometimes overzealously) proves this concern to be groundless; more than just a plant, at the time tea was part of "the triangular trade in botanical products" that "was the engine that powered a world economy." In "For All the Tea in China," the most eventful era of the tea plant gets the inspired treatment it deserves.
Kim Hedges is an editor and book reviewer in San Francisco.