In Sao Miguel, Clara Rego, majesty of teas

Infographic: Marianne Pasquier

The Azores, mythical stopover for long-distance sailors, Eden in the heart of the tumult of the Atlantic. 1,450 kilometers from the coast of Portugal, this autonomous region is made up of an archipelago of nine islands, including Sao Miguel, the largest and most populated, nicknamed “the green island”. Along the sleeping craters with rounded shapes by time descends a luxuriant vegetation of meadows and forests, tobacco fields and pineapple crops. In this bocage, cows spotted in black and white graze in the middle of intense blue hydrangea hedges. A nature with the false air of Brittany that one would say sketched to drive painters and photographers crazy. The Sete Cidades volcano, in the west of Sao Miguel, is one of the local rarities: its 5-kilometre-long lagoon hosts two large lakes, one with blue waters (Lagoa azul), the other with green waters ( Green Lagoon). It is at the foot of one of its steep slopes, covered with trees and flowers, that agricultural engineer Clara Rego works.

Clara Rego, among tea plants located near the Sete Cidades volcano, in May 2023.

To reach its secret orchard, you have to follow a thin, uneven road winding around the two lakes. This garden is an experimental agricultural center belonging to the government of the Azores. Behind azalea hedges, which isolate the different crops from the wind, Clara Rego is busy in the middle of a field of thirty-year-old tea trees. The young woman regularly opens a notebook to take notes, frowns behind her small glasses, whispers a few words while writing, then goes back to picking. She is wearing waterproof clothing, a midnight blue raincoat and green trousers, with rustic rubber boots on her feet. But above all a large white hat flying in the wind, which makes her look like Meryl Streep in Out of Africa.

The engineer comes as soon as she can monitor her crops, and from March to November, the harvest period, she is even there seven days a week. She knows the history of each of the plants and records everything down to the smallest detail: time of picking and the quantity picked up that day, how is each of his tea plants doing… ” My babies “she repeats, gazing affectionately at her parcel.

With an oceanic climate, both hot and humid, coupled with an acidic and mineral volcanic soil, the island of Sao Miguel offers an ideal soil for the development of camellias (Camellia sinensis), the plant from which tea is derived. At Sete Cidades, Clara Rego works confidentially on a specific variety of Camellia sinensisI’assamica of Indian origin. From this cultivar, she obtains a white tea, a rare and precious nectar that she is the only one to produce in the Azores. In this specific case, only the bud and the first leaf below it are harvested. Each gesture of this manual picking is executed with gentleness and precision. Even if three other pickers are also busy around her, the manna of the day remains meager: barely 1 kilogram of tea leaves collected. The annual tea production of the place has reached the 91 kilograms in 2022, a record year. Her crops will then go to dry for long hours in an ingenious solar dryer that Clara Rego invented in her laboratory of the agrarian development service, located in Ponta Delgada, capital of Sao Miguel.

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