It had been a long day exploring the island. We’d travelled east, to the very edge of São Miguel where the rocks look out across the ocean towards a Europe beyond the horizon. These were some of the first communities that settled in the Azores from Portugal, although in this part of the world, settled does not always mean permanent. Indeed, we met a guy who told us the story of his village, of centuries of migration and return, of when times were good and times were hard.
A hundred years ago, he said, people from his village would have rarely been to Ponta Delgada, at the other end of São Miguel, but nearly everyone would have family abroad. In the United States or Canada. In Brazil or Portugal. Today, a fast road links one end of the island with the other, and a journey to “the city” which once took a day or two passes in about an hour. Still, we had gone the long way round and by the time we were making our way back we were in need of a break and a nice cup of tea.
On the hillside beside the road, the plantation rose up in neat rows towards the ridge line with the Atlantic Ocean stretching out to the horizon below. We pulled into a car park in front of a whitewashed building that is the home of Europe’s oldest tea factory still in operation. Indeed, for a long time the Gorreana Tea Factory on São Miguel was the only place where tea was made in Europe. But an old plantation a few kilometres down the road has more recently been resurrected and, according to the young man showing us around, climate change meant that a commercial plantation was open, or about to be opened (he wasn’t sure) in Scotland.
Which makes sense, he said, seeing as how much British people like a cup of tea and the fact that almost all of the equipment used in the Gorreana Tea Factory was produced in the factories of Liverpool and Glasgow. As we walked around the building he explained that the machines had been built to select and sort tobacco leaves, but had long been pressed into service for less carcinogenic pleasures.
He told us about how the factory was opened in 1883 and made both green and black teas, and how they came from the same plant. In a back room, a group of women were doing the fine selections that even the trusty machines were not capable of, while a set of samovars gave visitors the chance to try the different teas for free. Of course, the young man continued, you should go and explore the plantation while you are here. After a quick cup of tea in the factory we crossed the road and headed up the hillside between the rows.
The 32 hectares of the Gorreana Tea Factory produce around 40 tons of tea a year, and a five-kilometre walking trail has been created to guide visitors up the steep hillside and through the plantation. As we walked we could look down the north coast of São Miguel and see the tea plants at different stages of their cultivation.
As with so many places we visited in the Azores, the hillside of the Gorreana tea plantation told part of the story of how these islands came to be settled, and the trials and tribulations of making a life on these volcanic rocks in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. For a long time, the wealth of São Miguel was based on oranges, mainly sold to Britain, but a combination of disease and competition from British colonies elsewhere saw the Azoreans try different new crops. Tobacco. Sweet potatoes. Pineapples. And of course, tea.
The number of plantations has fallen to two since its peak of fifty serving ten different factories about a hundred years ago, and although Gorreana cannot compete on price with the larger tea companies out there, as we walked along the dusty red tracks between the neat rows of tea bushes, it was nice to know that there was still a place for a family business like this, making the steep hillsides and volcanic soil work for them, and the tea drinkers around the world.
Back at the factory we bought some tea to take home with us, packets of black and green tea. Back home in Berlin we would brew them up, so that for months after our time in São Miguel we could find a way back to that hillside in the Azores, walking the neat rows with a view down to the villages above the Atlantic and the waves rolling in below.
Photographs: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton