Once upon a time there was, and still is, tea

The first reliable references regarding consumption of tea in China date back to the third century. For the Buddhist monks tea was a ritual drink. During the Tang dynasty it spread throughout the country and reached its maximum sophistication during subsequent dynasties. then it spread to Japan, where the famous Tea Ceremony became a ritual in the sixteenth century. The Portuguese are thought to have been the first to introduce the drink to Europe, even if the first concrete trace points to the Dutch East India Company. In Europe tea gained popularity initially in France and then in the Netherlands.

The first public place to serve tea was in England in 1657. 357 years after the first cup, it is still drunk several times a day: at breakfast, at five in the afternoon or as a real meal to replace dinner.

Today, in its various qualities and blends, tea is still the most frequently consumed drink in the world. The major producers are China, Taiwan, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Kenya, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Argentina and some parts of South America. In India, it is enriched with cardamom, pepper, cloves and nutmeg. According to tradition, chai is prepared by putting a little fresh ginger, tea and sugar into hot water and adding milk. In other parts of India, it is flavoured with orange or lemon peel, or, at higher altitudes, with rum.

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In Tibet, it is still prepared as it was centuries ago, boiling black tea leaves in water with cardamom and adding rancid butter and yak milk.

In China, tea-drinking still follows an ancient ritual, according to set rules: the temperature varies depending on the type of tea, close to boiling if it is black tea, around 80-85°C for fermented tea and 70°C for green tea. In Japan, the tea ceremony is called Cha No Yu and, as for China, importance is given to its preparation. There are many tea schools in this country, mainly for women. The water is boiled in a kettle and a teaspoon of powdered green tea is put into each ceramic cup. The water is then poured into the cups and the tea is stirred with a bamboo stick. When a slight foam appears on the surface, the tea is ready to serve. Arabs flavour their tea with fresh mint leaves and serve it in special glasses instead of cups. The Blue People or Tuaregs in the Sahara, also have a very complicated tea ritual.

Tradition calls for three different mint teas to be drunk, one after another. The first is strong and bitter, symbolising death and served by holding the teapot up to form a slight foam in the cup, while the second sees more boiling water added to the pot together with more mint leaves for a sweeter drink that symbolises life. The final cup is a much sweeter, lighter tea, the symbol of love. This complicated ceremony takes 2 or 3 hours. England has a very high level of tea consumption and it is drunk at various times throughout the day. Flavoured teas are drunk on their own, while Assam, Ceylon and Darjeeling are drunk with sugar and milk.

The Irish use the more nutritious cream instead of milk.

Russia too has high levels of tea consumption. It is served strong, pouring the boiling water out of a samovar, a sort of huge kettle with two teapots, a larger one for the hot water and a smaller one for the tea.

Tea consumption in France and Germany has increased greatly in recent years: favourite varieties are Darjeeling, Assam and above all, Lapsang Souchong, a smoked black tea. In Italy it is drunk in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening. Especially if it is good like Manuel tea.