Monday, November 15, 2010

Tea in Portugal: From the aisles of the isles

My quest for some tea from the Azores — the Atlantic islands due west of Portugal, and governed by that once pioneering tea country — was finally rewarded a few months ago. After striking out in my attempts to contact the actual tea producers on the islands, Lucia, a t2 reader at a university in Rome, shared with me a couple of samples of the teas she had purchased locally (thanks again!). I'm just now getting around to trying them.

The chance to sample them was rewarding; the actual taste, not so much. I knew from reading about them that Azores tea was not quality. The only tea grown as a commodity crop in Europe, it's cranked out for high production. The cha verde, green tea, from Gorreana, is pretty awful. The dry cut/shredded leaf is dusty and dirty, though it smells lovely and grassy; the brew looks dreadful, murky, like dishwater; the murky brownish tea has little flavor to speak of. Bummer.

Gorreana's orange pekoe (left) has much more going for it. This dry leaf was tightly rolled and twiggy, much more handsome. The resulting liquor is a beautiful amber color, with a warm, peaty scent. The taste is ... OK, nothing to sing about, a plain black tea. As the New York Times wrote in 1879, "The flavor of the infusion [is] by no means to be despised." I would agree with the back-handed compliment.

Postscript: A short while ago, I interviewed Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer for the band the Walkmen. Their latest album is called "Lisbon" (and lordy it's good, great retro sounds in the studio plus Hamilton's warm, wheezy ways with his voice). "We went there twice while recording the record," he told me, speaking of Lisbon. "Titling the record that just made sense in our minds. It's such a unique place, so incredible looking. It has its own feel, like nowhere else in the world. It's sort of out of the way, without the big museums and stuff to draw tourists. ... It felt like us, like someplace we could understand. It has its own feel. It's sort of out of the way. There aren't museums, etc., that draw you in like other places. The way it's laid out — it's built on a valley that leads down to the ocean. It's just this big swath of tile, little streets and beautiful buildings — nothing grand, just small joys. The whole city is built for cafe culture, with outdoor terraces all looking over the downtown on all sides. Great views wherever you go. I don't remember drinking tea there, but I could see it happening, on all those terraces. Good port, though. This special dish there is a nasty salty cod — it's gross, so salty you can't believe they eat it."

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