The Past and Future of the First European Tea Plantation – São Miguel

Wenzhuo Liu

As a decorative plant, tea was introduced to São Miguel island by Jacinto Leite, a native of the Azores in Portugal in 1820. It is the administrative capital of the Azores in the central part of the North Atlantic. Among the tea tree varieties brought to the island, only small leaf tea trees are well adapted to the climate and soil of the island. With the decline of the important pillar orange orchard agricultural industry on the island caused by diseases and insect pests from 1840 to 1875, tobacco, sugar beet, pineapple and tea were included in the experiment as alternative economic industries. In 1878 and 1891, two groups of Chinese tea industry experts were invited to the island to guide tea planting and tea processing, and the tea industry was successfully developed. At the beginning of the 20th century, the island had nearly 50 tea gardens and 10 independent factories exporting tea, which played an important role in the island’s economy. An important part of the island’s economy has been established around the planting, processing and export of tea. At that time, São Miguel island also became the only tea producing area in Europe. However, since the 1960s, the impact of the development of the international tea industry chain on the local tea industry, the shortage of local agricultural labor force, and the local policies to increase milk production have accelerated the decline of the whole tea industry on the island. At present, only two tea gardens with a total area of 25 hectares are still in operation, each with tea factories, mainly producing green tea and black tea. Where will the tea industry of São Miguel Island, which has developed for almost three centuries, and the tea culture derived from it go in the future?

Clara Estrela Rego of São Miguel Agrarian Development Service of the Regional Government of the Azores gave us a new blueprint for the development of tea industry on the island. As early as 1984, the government hired Mr. Artur Magalhães, a tea production expert, to improve the tea production on the island. He has more than 30 years of experience in growing and producing tea in Mozambique, south-eastern Africa, which was once a Portuguese colony. He imported large leaf tea plants from Malawi, Africa, and planted many places on the island for adaptability research. Due to strong wind and salty wind on the island, the two tea plantations located on the north coast of the island Ribeira Grande and and next to the barrier lake in the Sete Cidades crater in the west of the island have survived, covering an area of 300 and 4100 square meters respectively. Clara’s five person team now manages these two tea plantations without using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. They are applying for the approval of organic tea gardens. In the future, more tea plantations will be bred through seeds and cuttings to improve the biological and landscape diversity of the island and increase tourism economy. Since 2016, the team has been experimenting with the production of white tea for accidental reasons. Through these innovative attempts, they hope to encourage more people to invest in tea planting and processing, promote tea consumption, and continue the tea cultural tradition formed in the past three centuries.

Since Clara began to manage the two tea plantations, she would often pick and dry tea leaves, drink it by herself or treat guests with tea, and give it to visitors as a gift. The unexpectedly produced white tea was very popular, after being recognized by the tea practitioners in Portugal, Clara began to study the white tea samples on the market and self-study the white tea processing technology in combination with the information on the internet. The five members of the team manually picked single bud and one bud two leaves, the picking time of fresh leaves lasted from March to November. On average, 1600 kg of fresh leaves can be picked per hectare every year. After about 20 hours of indoor natural withering, tea leaves are then dried in a self-made solar heating chamber. The whole processing process is not directly exposed to sunlight. After the harvest season, if enough finished tea is produced, tea auctions for non-commercial purposes will be held to stimulate the tea industry activities of the islanders.

Indoor Natural Withering

Self-made Solar Heating Dry Chamber

Autumn Harvest White Tea in 2021

During the flowering period of tea trees, the flowers and young leaves of tea trees are picked, withered and dried together, which adds a new tea product. Steam soft loose white tea, and try to press cake manually by using available tools with similar principles. The process technology will be improved in continuous experiments in the future. I have tasted the autumn harvest white tea with one bud and two leaves produced in 2021, 2020, 2019 and 2016, found many similarities with Yunnan white tea. The new tea in 2021 shows high tea hair fragrance, the 2016 white tea in sealed storage naturally aged into a good mellow flavor during storage and has slightly aged aroma. Clara regularly detects the water content of dry tea in storage, and will pay more attention to the value of old white tea in the future. Clara regularly checks the moisture content of dry tea in storage and will pay more attention to the value of old white tea in the future.

Tea Tree Flowers and Young Tea Leaves Harvested in Early Winter of 2021

After years of development, the tea produced in São Miguel island is a common and even traditional drink on the island, and gradually derived the tea culture of São Miguel island. Many families on the island had planted some tea trees in their backyard to make homemade tea. Islanders had a habit of brewing in teapots and drinking black tea, with sugar and sometimes with milk. The afternoon tea at 5 o’clock should be accompanied by snacks. Clara recalled that her grandmother’s tea habit needed milk, but now the way of drinking tea on the island has changed a lot. For example, there is a tea house on the island that makes green tea with volcanic water rich in iron, and the chemical reaction of the tea infusion will become clear purple, which is very eye-appealing. Local potters also have a tradition of making tea sets with the archipelago’s clay. The local painter Domingos Rebêlo once painted women picking tea in the painting of São Miguel island industrial activities in 1934. In 2015, the local Carlos Machado Museum held an exhibition called “Tea Paths” to introduce the tea history and culture of São Miguel island. It not only displayed many old tea sets, but also displayed a large number of historical artifacts, tools, machinery and pictures related to tea on the island, as well as many interesting Chinese elements, artifacts, calligraphy and paintings, even the visual photography of the tea plantation by modern artist Francisco Melo Bento. What I think is of great historical significance and value is the exhibition of photos of Chinese tea experts on the island, their accounting manuscripts and newspaper reports about them at that time. The exhibition conveys the gratitude and commemoration of the contributions of two groups of Chinese tea experts to São Miguel island.

Old Tea Bowls and Teapots Made Locally, collected by Clara’s Colleague

Locally Made Tea Set

Lau-a-Pan, a tea expert from Macao, China, and Lau-a-Teng, his interpreter, came to São Miguel island in 1878 to teach local people tea plantation management and tea production for 16 months, and brought tea seeds, tea processing tools and equipment. Since then, the tea industry on the island has become more and more important. Then in 1891, two Chinese tea experts Lan Sam and Chon Sem were invited to stay on the island for three years to improve the quality of tea. At present, there are only two family tea gardens and tea factories left on the island, Chá Porto Formoso now focuses on organic tea, and Chá Gorreana built in 1883, it is the oldest tea garden tea factory on São Miguel island and Europe. This tea factory is not only free for tourists to visit, but also free to taste tea. It has become a must visit novel scenic spot for tourists on the island.

Lau-a-Pan and Lau-a-Teng, taken in 1878

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