BOOK REVIEW: Darjeeling by Jeff Koehler

Darjeeling: A History of the World's Greatest TeaDarjeeling: A History of the World’s Greatest Tea by Jeff Koehler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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As Bordeaux or Tokaj are to wine, Darjeeling is to tea, producing a quality beverage considered by many to be the best in the world. However, this isn’t merely the story of how this region of northern Bengal (or, alternatively, Gorkhaland) came to produce a unique kind of tea that would be sought-after around the world. It’s also a story of empire and how Britain’s insatiable demand for tea drove major developments in geopolitics. It’s yet further the story of recent troubled times of Darjeeling tea, from labor shortages to environmental degradation, and what tea estates have done to adapt – from management / organization changes to organic production techniques.

Lessons in the history and geography of tea may seem niche and uninteresting, but the story of tea is actually quite fascinating, involving Opium Wars, the Black Hole of Calcutta, and an industry shakeup resulting from India’s independence.

I found this book compelling, and thought it did a good job of zooming in and out between local and global (and past to present) to maintain the interest of a diverse readership. Whether the book is exploring attempts to transplant tea shrubs and expertise from China or the changing customer base for Darjeeling tea, it’s an engaging and thought-provoking story. If you’re interested in tea, world history, or agribusiness, you’ll likely find something in this book to hold your attention.


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Tea Master [Free Verse]

drink the wisdom --
you'll find it more in the heat
than in the liquid

subtle - 
like the flavor of tea

in drinking it 
you'll discover:

there is no tea,
but the tea --
a tea-less tea

the life in you
the life in me
melted into a mound
of unity

Tea Swarm [Haibun]

The cone-hatted ladies converge on the plantation, a spreading swarm, picking the fresh green leaves, tossing them over the shoulder into a backpacked wicker basket, leaving behind a flattop trimmed tea shrub. The mid-day rains drive away the pickers for a short time, but they'll be back, squeezing between dripping tea trees, their skirts saturated with the cold morning rain that will steam off into a muggy afternoon.

tea pickers
head back to the fields
after mid-day rains

POEM: What Kind of Shrub?


What kind of shrub grows an Empire?

What kind of shrub shifts the well-laid tracks of global trade routes?

What kind of shrub doesn’t know whether to be of nature or man?

Its even green sings the song of nature, stretching in an unbroken landscape to the forest’s pristine chaos-

-except when in need of picking. Then its bright, almost glowing, fresh tips are the shade of a newly trimmed outfield, standing out against nature’s dark olive.

But, its flat-topped, close-cropped ‘do tells a tale that’s all man, as do the fine parts that section off the shrubs into labyrinthine patterns for the pickers to navigate.

And what kind of shrub, each day, draws hordes of humans with wicker baskets on their backs and conical hats that are to the Vietnamese Paddy Hat what a novelty sombrero is to a real sombrero.

What kind of shrub…

POEM: Tea

 

Flat-topped tea shrubs

round over the contours

of ancient, eroded mountains

worn into low-lying lumps.


The army green plants

sport tight crew cuts–

the recently plucked.


The lime green plants

are slightly shaggy–

pickers will soon visit.


Tips will be tossed

over the shoulder

into conic, woven baskets.


Leaves to be dried in hot boxes

fired by crackling wood.


Crushed.


Bagged.


Steeped in boiling water.

Fusing into you.

DAILY PHOTO: Tea for Market

Taken on May 24, 2015 at the Glenloch tea factory in Katukithula, Sri Lanka

Taken on May 24, 2015 at the Glenloch tea factory in Katukithula, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is loaded with tea factories that can be visited for free [except what you may spend at the factory’s gift shop or restaurant.] If you’re interesting in how your food and beverages get to look like they do, these are nice places to see how this:

IMG_0620_cropped

 

gets turned into this:
IMG_0768Most of the tea that is produced on the Glenloch tea factory isn’t sold under the Glenloch brand. Instead, about 75% gets sent to Colombo, where it is auctioned off on a market to the highest bidder. That’s when it comes to be the tea you recognize from brands on your local shelf, e.g. Lipton. The bags above are the product that will be shipped to market.