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BOOK REVIEW: Teatimes: A World Tour by Helen Saberi

| 28 February 2019 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: Teatimes: A World Tour by Helen Saberi

Reaktion Books
June 2018
Hardcover, $59.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction / Cooking, Food & Drink

75% Rocking

Tea is one of the world’s most popular drinks. It also one of the most versatile as Helen Saberi’s Teatimes: A World Tour proves. The book is a delightful and colourful romp through time and around the world to celebrate all things Camellia Sinensis. This volume proves that there is so much more to tea than leaves in boiled water.

I hope that by reading this book you will enjoy your own memories of teatimes and take pleasure in reading about teatimes, past and present, from all over the world, in the comfort of your armchair while sipping a cup of your favourite tea.

Saberi is a British food writer and historian. She has previously written Tea: A Global History. In Teatimes, she takes a more expansive view and looks at the world’s obsession with tea. It’s one that takes her on a journey through fine bone china and porcelain, to billy teas and drinking from a saucer. This drink is ultimately an adaptable one consumed in different ways and in all kinds of settings.

The tea ceremony influenced all of Japan’s fine arts, including garden design, flower arrangement, architecture, calligraphy, painting, lacquer and ceramic arts. Specially built tearooms were constructed, set amid traditional Japanese gardens. The tearooms were intended to have an austere simplicity with no furniture, just mats. The walls were sliding partitions and the doors only 36 inches high, so all must bow to enter, acknowledging that they are equal before tea. The rooms are decorated with flowers of the season and poems were read celebrating the season. The food served was also not only seasonal but represented the season in its form and appearance. Dumplings were made to look like chestnuts in the autumn; rice cakes resembled bamboo shoots in the spring.

This volume strikes a balance between offering the context and history of tea, and some fascinating anecdotes and asides. The work traverses different regions with tasty morsels of bite-sized information offered. It is unsurprising that a large swathe of this book is devoted to Britain and Europe, because this is where tea is popular and where the author is from.

Tea arrived on Britain’s shores in the 1650s, brought over by Dutch trading companies, and quickly became fashionable among the rich upper classes. However, by the 1850s, when the cost of tea had become much lower and it had become more available, tea became the preferred beverage of everyone, rich and poor. It became part of the fabric of society and shaped the British way of life, appearing in almost every sphere of life from fashion to the decorative arts. Tea has become a defining symbol of Britishness.

It is clear that Saberi is a passionate tea drinker because this warmth appears in her prose. She has put time and care into researching different cultures and the way they consume their tea. While some readers may be familiar with the drink, they will also learn and appreciate some more obscure customs and facts. Consider the Uighur people and how they brew their tea, for instance:

The Uighurs are an ancient Turkic people who settled a long time ago along on the Silk Road, especially in what is now called Xinjiang province. They drink tea, both green and black, and make it in different ways: with salt and milk or with cream or sour cream and butter added to the tea in big bowls. Black tea is often flavoured with spices such as cardamom, cinnamon and sometimes saffron and rose petals. Green tea is preferred by Uighurs living in the Ferghana Valley. Tea is served to guests before a meal, accompanied by snacks of dried fruits, nuts or perhaps nan (bread) sprinkled with black nigella seeds. Tea is also served with sweets after a rich meal.

This is a hardcover book and it would make a good gift for tea drinkers and history lovers. There is a lot of text included here as well as colour and black and white photographs. These illustrate and reinforce the key points about the different cultures. There are also call-out boxes, which highlight topics or themes, like one dedicated to iced tea – a drink invented by Americans.

Iced tea recipes began appearing in American cookbooks in the early 1800s, initially in the form of alcoholic punches. Ice by this time was becoming available to many households. These early punches were made with green tea, rather than the black tea mostly used today, and laced with wine or liquor such as rum or brandy.

A selection of recipes feature here. Saberi uses this part to describe different brews as well as afternoon tea staples from all around the world. The latter includes cucumber sandwiches and sweets like madeleines, lemon drizzle cake, and more. The recipes are rather short and do not include photographs so some readers may prefer a more traditional cookbook. Their inclusion is a nice touch however, because it is great to learn more information about exotic afternoon treats and the vivid text makes your mouth-water.

Tea Times is an affectionate and detailed look at tea and its accoutrements. Saberi’s work is a highly readable and informative look at one of life’s most enjoyable pastimes–afternoon tea. With Saberi as our knowledgeable guide, it’s easy to see why tea has become so beloved and popular. This detailed and fascinating text will make you appreciate tea and all of its nuances. In fact, it may even make you want to raise your cups in honour – a toast to tea!

Natalie Salvo

Category: Book Reviews

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her website is at: http://nataliesalvo.wordpress.com

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