Firstly, this is a beautiful book. Even you had no interest in tea, you would be seduced by the quality of Jean-Francois Mallet's photographs. In fact, I sometimes found it hard to concentrate on the text since the images were so distracting. Indeed, who needs to read about the effects of tea on the assimilation of iron when you can lose yourself in the endless greens of a Malaysian tea plantation?
The text however is seductive in its own way, providing a wealth of concrete, technical information often lacking in books about tea in English. It is useful to remember Lydia Gautier is a founder of Paris's Ecole du Thé and is an agricultural engineer so her interest in tea is as far from the "afternoon tea and scones brigade" as can be. She writes about tea as others would about wine. She writes in the foreward that "my relationship with tea began some years ago once my palate had become educated to the taste of wine. I then discovered a richness and variety of aromatic qualities in tea comparable with those to be found in great wine types."
Throughout the book she uses terms such as "grand cru" and "terroir" to describe and class different teas.
Coupled with a wealth of quite specialist information (you get the composition of a fresh tea leaf and the chemical composition of theine) the book can be enjoyed on two levels; as a beautiful cookery/travel book, or as a tea tasting manual.
The book is divided into five parts. The first, A History of Tea, explores where tea originated and how different traditions have developed around the world. Much of this information is available elsewhere and Gautier doesn't make any controversial statements or assumptions. It is in part two, Alchemy of Tea, that the text develops as Gautier's background becomes apparent as she explores issues of climate, altitude, latitude and soil in some detail.
You'll still need to go to wine books for the real detail on terroir and its effects, but Gautier outlines the main points. (Incidentally, July's edition of Decanter magazine has an excellent article on terroir and brings up many of the controversies about the concept.)
Part three, Tea Tasting, is my favourite section. Gautier writes with true passion about experiencing the aromas and flavours of tea, and assumes the reader shares that passion.
"The flavour of tea is a complex perception obtained by combining the taste sensations perceived on the tongue (taste), the aromas perceived via the olfactory and thermal sensations perceived in the mouth (touch). All this sensory information reaches the brain without our really being able to distinguish it, which is what makes the tasting experience so magical."
Unsurprisingly, she has collaborated with Chloe Doutre-Roussel, known for her book "The Chocolate Connoisseur". They form part of a group of people taking very seriously issues of taste and the "fight for quality" in France and abroad. This is tea tasting as gastronomy.
It is in this section that you'll also find the characteristics described of 32 teas Gautier considers "grand cru" and images of a tea taster in action.
Part four, the Subtle Affinities of Tea, describes how the flavours of tea can be married with other foods and Gautier presents several recipes that use tea to enhance a dish.
Its fascinating reading (and looking) and I think well worth the hefty price tag.
Other reviews of the books are here and here.