Extraordinary Portuguese tea

CháCamélia Composit

Camellias reign supreme in the gardens of the north of Portugal. They love the rainy, temperate climate and the slightly acidic soil. The first camellias were probably brought from China by Portuguese merchants five centuries ago. These merchants also brought back some leaves that, when infused in hot water, produced an extraordinary drink called tea.

Tea is made from the leaves of a camellia shrub called sinensis. If camellias grow so well in the north of Portugal, how come no one has tried to produce tea there in the last five centuries? The answer is that tea production requires great patience, there’s a five-year lag between the plantation and the first harvest. It also demands knowledge, dedication, and the humility to accept the whims of nature. These are the same traits necessary to produce port wine. Perhaps that is why Dirk Niepoort, whose family has traded port since 1842, and his wife Nina Gruntkowski had the courage to venture into tea production.

Knowing that Dirk and Nina share a passion for tea, a friend offered them a small tea shrub. They planted it in a cold corner of their garden in Oporto and made each other a promise. If the plant survived, they would try to produce tea in the north of Portugal. The plant thrived, so in 2011 Dirk and Nina imported 200 shrubs and planted them first in their garden in Oporto and then in one of the Niepoort properties, close to sea. This year they harvested the first leaves.

Nina took us on a tour of the lush plantation. She talks about her plants with great affection. “These are my babies,” she said with pride “they will have a very happy life.” The production process is entirely organic and the leaves are harvested manually. Haruyo san and Shigeru Marimoto, a couple who produces premium organic tea in Japan, offered Dirk and Nina technical assistance. Producing tea is as complex as producing wine. But while enologists have plenty of time to make adjustments to their wines, tea leaves are processed in just four nerve-wrecking hours right after the harvest.

We tasted several premium green teas produced by the Marimotos. Some are mixed with herbs and flowers produced in Portugal, such as lemongrass, rose petals, elder flowers, and lemon verbena. They offer a wide palate of floral, grassy and nutty flavors.

We then sampled one of Dirk and Nina’s experiments: oolong tea aged in port-wine barrels. It is a blend of east and west that is enticing and new.

Finally, Nina brought out a small can, took out some leaves and brewed one more cup of tea for us. “Try it,” she said, her eyes shining with excitement. “It is the first tea made in continental Portugal.”

We closed our eyes to sip the precious liquid. It does not taste like Chinese or Japanese tea. It has the understated elegance of a great port. And it marries the exuberance of the Douro valley with the melancholic aroma of the sea. Why did we have to wait five centuries to drink this Portuguese tea? Perhaps it was the time required to wait for someone like Dirk and Nina, someone with the audacity to forsake the ordinary to strive for the extraordinary.

Click here for the Chá Camélia web site.

The Portuguese Tea Company

Composit Companhia do Chá.jpg

Portugal played a leading role in the trade with the Far East after Vasco da Gama discovered the sea way to India in 1498. One of the commodities brought from the orient by the caravels were the dried leaves of a plant called Caméllia sinensis. The Portuguese called these leaves and their infusion chá, after the Cantonese word chàh. Their Dutch rivals preferred a word from China’s Fujian province: tea.

When Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess, married Charles II of England in 1662, her trousseau included a basket of tea leaves. She used them to throw tea parties at court. These parties were such a success that drinking tea became a fashion that endures.

Two centuries later, Wenceslaus de Moraes, a Portuguese diplomat who lived in the orient, wrote a poetic book called The Cult of Tea. His goal was to introduce Europeans to the ancient art of serving tea.

Despite these historical connections, Portugal didn’t have a purveyor of fine teas until an Argentinian called Sebastian Filgueiros came to live in Lisbon. Trained as a tea sommelier, he decided to create the Companhia Portugueza de Chá (the Portuguese tea company). The company’s logo combines the profile of Catherine of Braganza with the word Lisbon handwritten by Wenceslaus de Moraes.

Sebastian travels often to the Far East in search of new producers. His favorite teas are the Darjeelings from India and the old black teas from China. But he is very proud of the teas made in Portugal. He’s been able to source two wonderful teas from Azores. The first is a delicate white tea made in cooperation with a research institute. The second is a rare Oolong from the Gorreana plantation. Sebastian sells a fragrant earl grey produced with bergamot oil from Alentejo and his own tea blend called Lisbon breakfast.

When he talks about tea, Sebastian has all the time in the world. And there’s a lot to talk about, from the harvest and oxidization of the leaves, to the way each tea is prepared and served. He speaks softly, as if the secrets of tea are for our ears only. It is worth listening because on the shelves of his store lies a world of tantalizing aromas and flavors waiting to be discovered.

The Companhia Portugueza do Chá operates in Rua do Poço dos Negros, 105, near Chiado, tel. 21-395-1614.