Camellia and Tea
To celebrate the upcoming Camellia Week (Semana das Camélias) which will invade Porto from 5 to 12 of March, we wrote an article that is allusive to the occasion: we talk about a camellia with a beautiful simplicity, that is also delicious.
Tea is a drink that is common to most of us, however, there aren’t many people who know what tea really is. So, what is tea? Tea comes from the leaves of the evergreen shrub Camellia sinensis. The tea plant belongs to the same genera of our beloved ornamental camellias, such as the notorious species Camellia japonica, Camellia sasanqua, Camellia reticulata, and Camellia saluenensis. The so-called linden, chamomile, lemon balm, elderberry, hibiscus, mint (and so on) teas are not teas unless the mix does, in fact, include tea leaves. The correct terminology is herbal tea or tisane.
Morphologically, the tea plant presents itself as an evergreen shrub, that is generally kept below 2 meters in height in plantations, but can grow up to 10 or 15 meters in the wild, and presents a delicate white flower. For the production of tea, only the young leaves and leaf buds from the first centimeters of the bush’s foliage are used. The picking of the leaves can be done all year round when new leaves appear.
The species Camellia sinensis requires acid soils, and an environment with warm and stable temperatures, as well as high humidity. As such, this plant is adapted to tropical and subtropical climates, being native to a great part of the Asian continent, namely East and Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. But tea is not exclusively produced in Asia. Tea is produced in over 30 countries, spread throughout nearly all continents.
TEA & PORTUGAL
But behold: Portugal has a long and intimate relationship with tea. The paths of Portugal and Camellia sinensis crossed somewhere in the 16th century, having been the Jesuit Priest Gaspar a Cruz the first European to encounter tea, during a mission in China. The word “chá” – an adaptation from the Cantonese chàh – then appeared, and the first reference comes in a letter from the missionary sent to Portugal, dating from 1560 . Together with the Dutch, the Portuguese were the first to bring tea to Europe, through a maritime commercial route with China in the 16th century (more here).
Portugal produces tea of an exquisite quality. Portugal was the first European nation to produce tea and has done so since the mid 18th century when Camellia sinensis was introduced to the Azores. Such examples are the internationally famed Chás Gorreana and Chá Porto Formoso, both from the Ilha de São Miguel. Gorreana produces both green and black tea, of the pekoe, orange pekoe and broken leaf varieties. These varieties refer to the quality and type of leaves that are used (you can know more here). Chás Porto Formoso only produces black tea, also from the pekoe, orange pekoe and broken leaf varieties.
There is also some Portuguese influence in the five o’clock tea mania. Catarina de Bragança, daughter of D. José IV of Portugal and wife of the Charles II of England, is thought to have introduced tea to the English court . The love for tea then spread from the English court all through the country and is still holding strong.
As for tea and its flavour, there is a lot to be said. Besides the infinite possibilities in combinations with fruits, flowers and other flavours, it’s important to know the essential: which types of tea exist, and what are the differences between them. Thus, we highlight the main types of tea, namely white, green, oolong, black and pu’erh. Below is a short description of each, starting with the mildest (white), and increasing up to the most robust (pu’erh).
To produce white tea, the leaf buds and young leaves are picked. They are steamed and dried in the sun. The oxidation of the leaf buds is almost none, which translates into a delicate and sweet flavour. This tea possesses a high amount of antioxidants and a low amount of caffeine.
Green tea is produced with non fermented leaves. This tea is considered to be the most medically beneficial, as it possesses a high dose of polyphenols, and has less caffeine than black tea. It is indeed the most used variety of tea in biomedical research, having several benefits been attributed to green tea, in the combat against ailments such as cancer, arthritis, stress, diabetes, liver disease, osteoporosis, obesity, heart disease, and protection against ultraviolet rays .
Oolong and pu’erh teas are still quite unknown amongst us. Oolong is a semi-fermented tea, which is dried in the peak of the sun, and is quite oxidized. As there are several ways to produce this tea, there is also a vast array of flavours, which go from sweet to fresh, or even woody.
This tea is the most produced and consumed in the world. This flavour is robust, due to the strong oxidation that it suffers from its production. It possesses a high caffeine content and is rich in flavonoids.
This tea is very similar to black tea, and comes from a particularly large-leaved variety of tea plant, and can be picked all year round. The main trait for this tea is its strong fermentation process, compression and even aging. The time for which this tea is left to age can vary from a few years to several decades.
We finish with an incentive to all those who know or want to get to know more about camellias, giving one or two suggestions and leaving the main highlights of the events that will happen in the following week:
- For the curious minds, there are two specimens of Camellia sinensis at Jardim Botânico do Porto.
- Take some time to notice the camellias that grow in some of the main garden spaces in Porto, with highlights going to Palácio de Cristal, Jardins do Museu Romântico and Casa Tait, Jardim Botânico, Jardim da Cordoaria and Jardim de São Lázaro, for example. A tour of some gardens with camellias can be seen here.
- From 5 to 6 of March, you can explore the 21st Camellia Exhibit of Porto (XXI Exposição de Camélias do Porto), which will be held Casa de Serralves, promoted by Associação Portuguesa de Camélias, PortoLazer and the Pelouro de Ambiente da Câmara do Porto.
- A visit to the gardens of Quinta Villar d’Allen is really worth the trip, as they possess one of the country’s biggest collections of camellias.
- The event “A Feitoria, as Famílias Inglesas e as Camélias” allows you to understand the connection between the history of the English families of Porto and the dissemination of camellias in the city’s gardens (limited to 20 participants).
- The remaining program can be consulted here.
References  Bennett Alan Weinberg & Bonnie K. Bealer (2001) The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World's Most Popular Drug. New York: Routledge.  Phillips, Edite Vieira (1998) O Livro do Chá, a história, o ritual e a prática. Sintra: Colares Editora.  Cooper, R., Morré, D. J., & Morré, D. M. (2005). Medicinal benefits of green tea: Part I. Review of noncancer health benefits. Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 11(3), 521-528.
Credits Illustration from Biodiversity Heritage Library from Flickr, CC BY 2.0.