On a misty hillside high above a stretch of the mainland's southeast coast, migrant worker Tao Mingxiu steps nimbly between tea bushes on a steep terrace, shifts the weight of the seven-month-old son she is carrying on a sling on her back and stares in disbelief. 'How much did you say?' the 25-year-old from Guizhou province asks with an expression wavering between incredulous and amused. 'That can't be right. I can't believe anyone could afford to pay 300 yuan for a cup of tea.' Tao earns 20 yuan a day tending bushes and picking tea from the hillsides of Fuding. The idea that thousands of kilometres away, in genteel tea shops in Europe, people spend as much as she earns in a fortnight on a single pot of tea is almost impossible for her to grasp. But this is no ordinary tea. This is silver needle white, the world's most expensive tea and a drink that has suddenly captured the imagination of health-conscious westerners, who are being told by marketers that it can slow the ageing process and prevent cancer. The result of the hype is that a tea revered in China for more than 1,000 years but virtually unknown outside the mainland three years ago has suddenly become the drink of choice for those wealthy enough to afford it. At the Plaisir du Chocolat teashop in Edinburgh, Scotland, a pot of silver needle tea for one costs GBP20 (HK$300). The assistant manager there claims it is 'a high quality tea and probably the most expensive in the world'. At Claridge's in London, where a spokesman describes silver needle as an 'absolutely fabulous and gorgeous tea', the price is the equivalent of HK$250. Even in Hong Kong, an hour's flight from Fujian province, where it is grown, a single serving at The Peninsula hotel costs HK$50. It has caused such a stir that, in one incident in London, a well-known Sunday Times restaurant critic and his companion sent back a pot in disgust when they realised it was going to cost them GBP10 each. At such prices you would expect a tea fit for an emperor - and that, promoters say, is what you get. During the Song dynasty, white tea leaves and buds would be ground into a silvery powder in bowls during what was known as the Song tea ceremony - a forerunner of the Japanese tea ceremony. Emperor Huizong, who ruled from 1101 to 1125, wrote that white tea had 'the rarest and most delicate flavour'. Legend has it he became so obsessed with his quest to find the perfect tea he lost much of his empire. The key selling point in the west appears to be the alleged health benefits of silver needle tea. According to Will Ricker, who sells it for GBP10 a pot in his E&O (Eastern & Oriental) restaurant in London's Notting Hill, the tea possesses 'amazing powers and is great for cleansing your body and soul'. Importers such as London-based Jing Tea, which supplies some of the city's top restaurants and tea shops, have helped push the wholesome image of silver needle white tea, although there appears to be little scientific data to back up their health claims. The tea is low in caffeine and high in antioxidants but much of its allure, like many health products, appears to be that it comes from somewhere exotic and remote, where maybe, just maybe, people have discovered the secret of a longer life. On Jing Tea's website, buyer Edward Eisler sums up that element of silver needle tea's appeal when he says of Fuding: 'The air is so fresh and pure that when you breathe it in, it seems to make sense that white tea is so associated with health.' The production of silver needle tea is almost as elaborate as the ceremonies that surround the way it is served in mainland tea houses. Taken from white tea bushes in a remote part of Fujian, silver needle tea comprises the uppermost, downy buds of the plant. It is picked for only a few weeks in late March and April, when thousands of migrant workers pour into Fuding for the harvest. The buds are laid out to dry in the sun. In some cases the buds are laid for a week beneath a bed of jasmine to allow the tea to absorb the scent of the flowers. There is no doubt it is an elite, exclusive tea. But for Tao, who works year-round at the Tian Hu (Sky Lake) Tea Farm, which exports silver needle tea to markets around the world, there is little romance or mystique surrounding the bushes that represent her livelihood. Tao, who shares a stone hut with her husband and baby and one other migrant family, has worked for two years in the hills above Fuding, picking and processing tea during the harvesting season and tending the vast terraces as part of the skeleton staff that operates during the winter. After the silver needle tea has been harvested, she and the other migrant workers who remain spend summer and autumn picking what's left of the bushes, which is used to make cheaper varieties of tea such as white peony. In August, Tao, gave birth to her baby boy and stopped working for two months before strapping the eight-week-old to her back and returning to the fields alongside dozens of other mothers who carry their infants while they work. 'The work here is very hard but we have relatives in our home province to support and we have no choice,' she says. 'It isn't picking the tea that's the hardest part. It is working for 10 hours in bright sunshine that can be torturous. Sometimes women pass out from the heat.' The plantations where silver needle tea is grown are set high in a spectacular coastal mountain range, where stony peaks rise out of a green mountain valley ringed by zig-zagging terraces of tea bushes. They lie an hour's drive up twisting dirt roads from the bustling county town of Fuding and sit in an oasis of clear skies and cool, sharp air. 'The air up here is pure,' one of the farm's supervisors says proudly. 'There is no pollution here, not like the rest of China. That is why the tea we grow up here is so cleansing and so good.' Compared with the relentlessly modern outlook being adopted elsewhere in China, the plantations are fiercely traditional. Farming methods have stayed the same for centuries. Chemical fertilisers are banned, no pesticides are allowed and no machinery is used for harvesting, leaving the mostly women pickers with heavily calloused hands. From a distance, sitting beneath the dazzling blue, pollution-free sky, the tea farms look like something out of a Tuscan landscape, but up close the squalor of the workers' living quarters at the centre of the plantations is apparent. Sewage and washing water pour from open pipes behind the dormitories and rubbish is strewn along dirt roads marking the divide between the living areas and the tea terraces. In front of the dormitories, semi-naked children play in the dirt watched by their mothers while other women carry sleeping babies in back harnesses as they scrub clothes in outdoor water troughs. Later, as night falls, workers huddle in their spartan dormitories, lighting fires on the floor with twigs, paper and rubbish to cook food and keep out the chill night air. Nearly all the workers at the Tian Hu Tea Farm come from Guizhou and many of those who work year-round were unable to return home for Lunar New Year. 'We couldn't afford the tickets home,' says Tao Sulin, 29, who works at the farm with his wife. 'The journey to our home town by bus takes two days and two nights and would have cost us two months' wages.' The back-breaking work in the fields, which starts at 5am throughout the spring and summer, is poorly paid, with daily rates of 20 to 30 yuan. Only migrant workers from provinces such as Guizhou are prepared to work for 10 hours a day, seven days a week on the sun-scorched terraces. As the plantations are extended and new terraces planted to keep pace with overseas demand, workers say their pay has remained unchanged even though the booming market has seen supplies eaten up and export prices soar. Xiong Guangmei, 24, has a three-week-old baby and has been earning 20 yuan a day to tend the tea bushes through the winter. 'I will work through this next harvest then I hope I will have enough money to take my baby home,' she says. 'I've been here for three years now but I don't want my daughter to grow up here.' Importers buy silver needle tea mostly through China's state-owned exporting firms, which do deals to buy the entire crops of the dozens of small farms and plantations. Grandmother Tu Yinzhu, 60, who singlehandedly farms a hectare of white tea trees on a steep mountain terrace, says the booming demand in the past year amounted to less than a 20-yuan-a-week increase for her. 'Last year I got 3,000 yuan for my entire crop. This year the price will be 4,000 yuan,' she says. 'I know they'll be selling it on for a much higher price but there's nothing I can do about it. There's only one buyer under this system.' He Mengmiao, 28, manager of the Heng Yuan Chun Tea Farm, which employs 500 migrant workers from March to October and exports 1,000kg of silver needle white tea to markets including Britain, Germany and Japan, says his company is struggling to turn a profit. 'Our migrant workers are from Anhui province and they can earn up to 900 yuan a month at harvest time, depending on how much they pick. If we paid them any more it would wipe out our profits,' he says. 'Of course, I've heard how much this tea is selling for in places such as London but we aren't seeing any of that money here in China. 'The investment return for us is very low. The price we get from the export company hasn't changed. We sell silver needle tea to them for 300 yuan a kilogram. Maybe they sell it on for five or 10 times as much. We don't dare ask because it isn't our business.' As a new harvesting season begins, He admits finding enough workers to pick the crop at his remote farm will be challenging. 'Most of the migrant workers here are aged 40 to 60,' he says. 'For anyone younger, this place is too cut off and too far away from civilisation. They have to live here all the time and for younger people it's too much isolation for them to bear.' Tea master Teddy Leung Yau-bun, manager of the Spring Moon restaurant at The Peninsula, says silver needle and other Chinese teas have gone from obscurity to achieve international celebrity status in the past three years. 'I was in Europe in 2002 and not many people knew about Chinese tea. They knew about jasmine tea but that was about all. Then, in the past three years, a lot of European and American people have been coming to the restaurant asking for tea, particularly green tea. 'White tea simply didn't exist in the European market five years ago. Now it has suddenly arrived because of the popularity of green tea. Everyone is asking for it. Demand has gone up and the price has gone up as a consequence. It is amazing. It is like [the market for] wine.' There is little doubt, Leung says, that silver needle tea is a healthy drink. 'It is certainly healthy compared to other drinks. It is good for your kidneys and your stomach,' he says. 'It also has many antioxidants and I am sure it has the potential to prevent cancer.' But is this drink of the Song-dynasty emperors going to disappoint its fans in the west? Is it really a secret elixir that could help fight off cancer and old age for HK$300 a pot? Leung is non-committal. 'What's interesting is that people in Hong Kong, who know a lot about tea, are not as crazy for white tea as people in London and other places. Here, the market has increased, but not so much,' he says. 'At the moment, green tea is still No 1 in the market in Hong Kong. There isn't an enormous demand for silver needle tea and white tea. In places like Europe, the market is often driven by other factors. Maybe someone is doing a good job promoting it to increase its price.'