As a non-drinker, I am sometimes a little jealous of the seemingly endless varieties of locally produced wines, beers and ciders (the list goes on) that are to be found all over the world. I would wager that there are very few regions that don’t produce their own alcoholic tipple, and, as I found out on a recent work trip, the Azores are certainly no exception. In fact, the incredible vineyards on the island of Pico are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and they produce some excellent wines – well, according to my colleague James anyway! Fortunately for me, though, the Azores don’t only produce alcoholic beverages: I was very happy to discover that they also have their own tea and a soft drink called Kima.
Firstly, the tea! São Miguel, the biggest island in the Azores archipelago, is home to the oldest remaining tea plantation in Europe. I have to say the plantation really does show its age, but that is by no means a negative comment: the estate’s maturity means it possesses a certain charm and tranquillity, as I was to discover. As the plantation is only a few minutes’ drive from Inntravel’s hotel in Maia, once we arrived, I needed to earn my first cup of tea with a short walk, which was actually no chore at all as there is no better way to ‘earn’ a cuppa than by having a lovely stroll around a tea plantation.
We had set off relatively early in the morning so we had the fields of tea pretty much to ourselves, which was a great way to appreciate the tranquillity of the estate. The route through the plantation heads uphill, with the terraces rising before you in large, neat green steps. As you wind your way through these, climbing steadily, the view behind you slowly develops, adding elements that you couldn’t see previously: starting from the tea factory, the Atlantic joins the backdrop and then more and more of the coast opens up. As we ascended, we passed one of the workers on horseback carrying pails of water, which really added to the whole ‘old world’ experience. And by the time we reached the highest point of the walk, we had earned a delightful view over the terraces down to the factory, with the coastline stretching away to the east and the vast Atlantic extending north, uninterrupted all the way to the southern coast of Greenland, which gives a tremendous sense of remoteness. Once you have soaked it all in, you pass back through the terraces, down to the tea factory itself.
This fabulous factory, despite being in operation, allows you to wander in and tour its interesting interior. The first thing you come across is the brilliant Victorian-era machinery. When I say Victorian machinery, that is literally what I mean: the pieces of apparatus that clunk and whir to process the tea leaves were made in Britain and date from the late 1800s. The beauty of these old machines is that you get an excellent view of how they actually work – there are no fancy plastic covers to spoil your view so you get a true insight, straight into the guts of the machine. This allows you to properly appreciate how all the components come together to create one beautiful piece of engineering.
After all this exploration, I was very glad to see the tasting area: having been able to appreciate the entire process, I was especially keen to try the finished product. I am no tea expert, and that is something of an understatement, but this seemed pretty delicious to me. The black tea sat somewhere between a light Twinings and our slightly stronger office favourite, Yorkshire Tea (what else are we going to drink in the heart of Yorkshire?!). The green tea was also very good, though, to be honest, I have nothing to compare it against. Having had a fabulous morning – and I would suggest an early visit to avoid the busier periods later in the day – I can now appreciate tea far more than I did previously!
Now I have to admit that I have a bit of sweet tooth so inevitably the Kima soft drink was always going to be my preferred tipple, but I wasn’t expecting it to rank so highly against the soft drinks from back home. Kima is a brilliantly simple drink, based on passion fruit but with a nice fizz. It’s the perfect refresher after a long walk, and so many of my memories of Kima are inevitably tied to some superb hiking routes.
One of my favourite Kima pit-stops came on São Jorge. After a descent which began high on the clouded central ridge of this cigar-shaped island, we quickly emerged into sunshine and were able to see the beautiful azure ocean stretching ahead with the island of Terceira sitting elegantly in the calm waters. As we descended through fields and rustic gates, we walked past small herds of tranquil cattle that barely raised a head to watch us pass. After a brief stop at a beautiful waterfall, we arrived just above the little hamlet of Fajã da Caldeira do Santa Cristo, which is built on a volcanic spur that juts out into the ocean, and surrounded by steep sea cliffs. When we entered this small village, we were the only ones about and so we decided to stop for refreshment, a little warm after descending from the high ridge. I have to say that the bottle of Kima I purchased at the café was heaven sent, and the second was just as delicious! Thank goodness for the dirt track that allows quad bikes to bring supplies from the nearest road.
I could give you numerous other examples of when this refreshing burst of passion fruit was very welcome, but I must insist that you head there yourselves to experience it first-hand. Since returning home from the Azores, I have discovered that there is also a pineapple version of Kima, which is yet another reason – amongst many, many others – why I will definitely be returning to this spectacular set of islands.