One reason why I was excited to start writing for this blog was that I saw tea reviews alongside the book reviews. I love tea and books about equally (and they go so well together), so I knew this was the place for me. I also knew that it was the place to review Darjeeling, which had been on my TBR list for a while.
Darjeeling by Jeff Koehler is subtitled “The Colorful History and Precarious Fate of the World’s Greatest Tea” and it basically lives up to that promise, taking you from the earliest recorded knowledge of tea itself, to a look at the state of the Darjeeling tea industry in 2014, with a lot of interesting stops along the way.
If you’re not a tea drinker, you might ask yourself what makes Darjeeling tea so special. Like wine and coffee, tea has terroir, and the conditions in the Darjeeling region of India make for leaves that have an especially appealing taste, apparently. I actually don’t think I’ve ever had a cup of Darjeeling, mind you. I usually go for flavored blends of black tea, reaching for pu’erh, green, or oolong teas when I want a high-quality single origin tea. But after reading this book, I certainly want to try some Darjeeling.
Adding to Darjeeling’s appeal is the fact that it is remote, and there’s only so much space for gardens, which means it only produces so much tea. This combination of semi-scarcity with high quality leads to it being a coveted product.
You’ll learn all about this if you read Darjeeling. You’ll also learn a lot about tea’s colonial past, including the Opium Wars, and how the whole reason why tea was actively cultivated in India was because Great Britain didn’t want to rely on China for their tea.
So there’s a whole lot of colonialism to unpack.
Koehler doesn’t seem particularly critical of the British empire, nor of current working and living conditions on tea farms, which while not as bad as in some industries, still leave a lot of people with a desire to move to the city for better wages and a better way of life for their children. There’s a bit of talk about ways to give employees more ownership of the tea farms, thus increasing their investment and returns, and the author seems more concerned about what these efforts mean for the future of tea rather than their important human impact.
Oh, and don’t even get me started on the section on biodynamic farming.
While there were parts of this book that left me frustrated, or disappointed in humanity, over all it was an enjoyable read. In addition to really getting into the history of tea and the region, the author spends a lot of time talking with tea farm managers, auctioneers, tea shop owners and others in the industry. You learn about the entire journey of the tea, from planting to harvest to processing to sale to where it is most commonly exported. You’ll learn about counterfeit Darjeeling tea, what new trends the growers are focusing on, and the difference in tea drinking habits in India and the Western world.
I’d consider this a must-read for any tea drinker, but it will probably also be of interest to readers who just love to learn about food and drink in general, or who have an interest in India. To me, it was really interesting to see how an industry that was started by colonial British interests is now largely owned and operated by the native Indian population, and how changes in the industry have followed changes in local politics.
Pros: Really thorough, and there’s even a selection of recipes in the back!
Cons: Feels somewhat short-sighted on social issues, you will get mad at any British ancestors you might have.
Conclusion: A good read that will leave you craving a cup of Darjeeling, even if you’re not a tea person.