Azure is often described as the color of sky on a clear day. On the color spectrum, it rests in a calm, cool window somewhere between cyan and true blue. Flying over the north Atlantic, all you see is azure blue in the reflected water.
For hours, nothing but sparkling waves pass beneath the belly of the plane. Until suddenly, it slows and swivels in descent. Striking, verdant specks on grow from the blue water: The Azores islands.
The Azores are the perfect blend of lush tropics and old Europe. Streets are lined with simple mosaics, the houses numbered with blue lettering on ceramic tiles. Some of the blue and white print might come from Ceramica Vieira, a family-owned porcelain company which has operated on the island of Sao Miguel since 1862.
There’s endless beauty on these islands. Shorelines of stark volcanic cliffs, or jagged black beaches that catch waves in a cinematic flair. Calderas create perfect bowls for placid lakes, hot springs exhale steam, and mineral-rich waterfalls like run orange ribbons through green forests. But what always impresses me most on an island as small as Sao Miguel, is their agriculture.
Pastures and crop fields alike are patchworked across the island. Small and large, accessible and out-of-reach, some gentle but most carved out of rocky volcanic terrain. Cows dot fields, fenced off by a mix of centuries-old craggy basalt fencelines and modern electric wire.
Tea has been cultivated in Sao Miguel’s Ribeira Grande since 1883. At production’s peak, 14 different plantations existed on Sao Miguel, alone. Now, Chá Gorreana and Chá Porto Fomoso remain as Europe’s only tea plantations.
The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, originated from the foothills of the Himalayas in modern China. All varieties of tea originate from this same plant, whether black or green. The variation in flavor and color comes from differences in harvesting and preparation—if the leaves are fermented or steamed, dried or roasted.
It’s a tricky thing to grow. You have to have the right soil acidity, the right elevation, the right shade. Most of all you need the right temperature range, which mainland Europe doesn’t offer year-round. The Azores, on the other hand, rarely exceed the range of 10-30°C.
As an admitted caffeine addict, I’ve always thought coffee to be the superior morning beverage. But I’ve recently been put to the test. I learned that, actually, tea holds the most caffeine of any caffeine-bearing plant. Including coffee beans.
At first I didn’t buy it. I feel “the buzz” so much more powerfully after my pour-over or espresso than from a cup of black tea. Then I learned it’s a matter of quantity: it takes around 15 grams of coffee grounds to brew a single cup, where a cup of tea takes only three grams of dried leaves. Also, the comforting “buzz” I get from my coffee is usually accompanied by a low whirr of mild anxiety. I never get that from tea, so it must not be working, right?
Well, on my deep-dive into tea growing and drinking, I learned C. sinensis contains L-Theanine, a chemical that creates an antianxiety affect that synergizes with the caffeine in tea, both soothing and activating you at the same time. Add onto that the antioxidant benefits that tea carries, and you have a magic plant that has been carried the whole world over, for good reason.
Though I am nowhere near abandoning my favorite plant medicine (coffee) I have been appreciating each cup of tea this week with special respect. The nuances of tea, the way it’s cultivated, cut, prepared, and then served make all the difference in the flavor. Its level of sweetness and umami shift depending on the first, second, or third pour over the wilted leaves.
So, the next cup of tea you have, I invite you to soak in the flavors. Try and note what is going on in your palate and take a moment to inhale the steam floating off your cup. Try and imagine where the leaves steeping in the water may have come from. Who packaged them, who dried them? Were these leaves plucked fresh and green, or later in the season?
No need to worry about being accurate with your imaginative teascape journey, just wonder. And, if you’d like, imagine the rows of low bushes, green amidst the green of hills. With black specks of cattle in the far fields and cliffs hanging steep in the distance, dropping away into the cool, azure water of the Atlantic.
Join us for tea, hikes, spa hotels and more on the Azores in April 2023! Get all the details here.