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FROM LEGEND TO LIFESTYLE

Many stories are told about tea. There are legends, fairytales and myths handed down from one generation to the next to create a narrative that explains the place of this most special drink in our lives. Of course, many of these tales aren't supported by any evidence. But just like their subject matter, they make us feel better about the world, helping us to find out how tea came into our lives, and what it means to us. In one famous tale, for example, the wind carries the finest leaves from a tea bush to the divine emperor's bowl of freshly boiled water, who discovers their delicate flavour almost by accident. Another confronts us with the vision of gentle young virgins snipping off the silvery tips of a tea bush using gilded scissors, so the emperor may enjoy them on just a handful of days each year. Perhaps the most evocative story about the origins of tea is that of Bodhidharma. a follower of Buddha. After meditating for a long time, he accidentally fell asleep against a tree. On wakening, he was so angered by his lack of discipline that he tore off his eyelids and hurled them away, in order that they would never betray him again, legend has it that a pair of tea bushes sprung up in the very place that Bodhidharma's eyelids fell, marking the first appearance of this, the world's most spiritual drink. The eyelid theme recurs in tea lore, with another story claiming that the first-ever tea bushes came from the eyelashes of none other than Prince Siddharta himself. He was the beautiful Indian prince who attained enlightenment and founded the teachings of Buddhism.

These wonderful, evocative stories keep the enchantment of tea alive for contemporary drinkers. They build on the history of this drink, which was first consumed in China about 5,000 years ago and has gone on to conquer the globe. China remains the world's biggest tea producer, but the plant is now also grown in Japan, India, Sri Lanka, Africa, Indonesia and South America. You'll also find tea bushes in places like Vietnam, Argentina, Turkey, Iran, the Azores, and the Caucasus Mountains.Even more surprisingly, you'll find It being cultivated in southern England-although only in modest amounts. That s because tea requires very particular climactic conditions in order to thrive. The tea bush flourishes in a select number of locations, where there is plenty of sunlight at just the right time of day, and plenty of warmth. Tea also does best when there is a contrast between the day- and night-time temperatures, and where there is high atmospheric humidity leading to regular mist and rain. It also requires the right kind of soil, which shouldn't ever get too damp, and grows especially well in beautiful subtropical or tropical mountainous areas, where it can develop at a steady pace and develop its characteristic subtlety of flavour.

Tempting as it might be to the keen amateur gardener, therefore, there’s not much point in starting a tea plantation in Basildon or in the middle of the North York Moors. With the one exception of that ambitious grower in the south of England, tea is unlikely to take off as a crop on UK shores. In consequence, like many other nations, we have to import our tea supplies. And we need plenty of them, because it is a mainstay of British life. This is true of other countries, like Russia, Turkey and Asia. Indeed, whether you are In the sands of the desert or the sands of a British seaside resort, the chances are you'll be welcomed as a guest with a cup of steaming hot tea. There's something ceremonial about that in itself. But then again, the preparation and sharing of tea has always been characterised by pomp and circumstance. Alongside the traditional high tea of a top-class hotel, many other places now offer tea as a drink aimed squarely at discerning individuals who se6 it as far more than just another drink.

All of which makes it doubly disappointing to be confronted with a sub-standard brew. The lukewarm cuppa from a coffee-stained thermos flask is the epitome of this and enough to depress even the most upbeat of souls. Fortunately, as knowledge of tea grows throughout the world, people are becoming more particular about how it is prepared. Not for the tea connoisseur a dust-filled tea bag dipped in a cracked mug of tepid water. In fact, even the well-intentioned preparation of loose tea in a wide-meshed strainer will cause some tea lovers to wrinkle their nose.

You see, enjoying tea requires more than passing attention to detail. The knowledgeable tea drinker will be able to identify the quality and steeping time of a cup just by sipping it. That's why so many tea lovers like to brew their own tea, so they retain control of the careful process that goes into producing a tip-top cup of their favourite variety. Of course, such people attach great importance to the right drinking receptacle, and only the finest china will do. They also appreciate being provided with a small timer at their table, so they can measure the steeping time to the second. And they certainly don't want to be presented with a mass-produced tea bag thrown carelessly into a tea glass by a distracted waiter. Restaurateurs of the world: you have been warned.

In private, people tend to be a little more relaxed about their cup of tea. Even here, though, the tea enthusiast will prefer to drink fresh tea that has been stored apart from items like coffee, spices and herbs. If the tea leaves have picked up even the merest hint of these odours, this can be tasted in the tea cup, ruining the whole experience of drinking it. Tea has long endured ill-treatment at the hands of people who ought to know better. Fortunately, however, a growing number of people are now learning how to treat this precious drink with the respect it deserves.