Azores Islands, a Tasting Tour
The Azores Islands are one of the best kept secrets of the Atlantic Ocean. Consisting of nine islands of volcanic origin, the archipelago is blessed with a sort of Jurassic beauty: crater lakes in dormant volcanoes, stretches of green land extending to the ocean shores and little villages perched on top of black cliffs.
An Autonomous Region of Portugal – from where the first colonisers arrived in 1400 – the Azores are still off the beaten tourist track and a paradise for hikers thanks to their uncontaminated natural environment.
Flores, Corvo, Graciosa, Terceira, São Jorge, Pico, Faial, São Miguel, Santa Maria: each island is endowed with its own particular characteristics, in terms of landscape, culture and, of course, food. We picked three of them to inaugurate our Azorean tour.
Terceira has the semblance of a marvellous watercolour, in which the greenest of fields give way to little pastel coloured houses. Farming and the raising of livestock – cows in particular – constitute the main forms of economic activity together with fishing, here as on all the other islands.
A hotel, restaurant and ethnographic museum, Quinta do Martelo is the place to go if you want to try Alacatra, a very famous pot roast of beef cooked in a wood fired oven with bacon, blood sausage, red wine and spices. The first room of the restaurant is furbished to resemble a 19th century shop: the wine is brought out from under the counter together with the local equivalent of nibbles, such as broad beans or fresh cheese with a chilli pepper sauce.
To pick up a delicious souvenir go to the O Forno cake shop at Angra do Heroísmo, which is the capital town of the island and a UNESCO heritage site as of 1983. Their specialities are the Dona Amélia cakes, first created in 1901 as a tribute to the Queen of Portugal who visited the island with the rest of the royal family. Maize flour, raisins, treacle, cinnamon, pepper and cloves: it is not hard to see why they call this sweet the cake of the Indies
The landscape of Pico is one of the most alienating yet fascinating you will ever get the chance to see. Cliffs of jet black lava stone rise above the sea, the same stone used to build almost all the houses here and which served in the past to construct the labyrinth of little walls (currais) protecting the vineyards from the ocean winds. In the 1800’s the island was known as the “mother of wine” and it used to export about 15,000 barrels a year, but the phylloxera outbreak of 1872 caused production to be abandoned and it is only in recent years that it has been resumed. In 2004 the 987 hectares of the Landscape of the Pico Island Vineyard Culture was declared a UNESCO world heritage site. For an interesting wine tour of the island, you may contact a company called Tripix. They even offer a trekking excursion on the summit of the Volcano de Pico, the highest point of all Portugal with its 2350 metres – however, we advise you to set out before tasting the wines (two wines that make it all worthwhile: the Terras de Lava Rosé and the Frei Gigante white wine). There is rather a limited choice of restaurants on the island. You will however find good value for money at the Aldeia Da Fonte, offering local specialities such as a pot roasted octopus in red wine and at the Cella Bar whose curious structure – a cross between a wine barrel and a whale, all built from materials sourced on the island comprising the terrace with ocean view – has won international architectural awards.
The largest island of the archipelago and the one on which half of the Azorean population lives is quite different from its sisters. Not for any lack of breath-taking landscapes but because it has a greater number of tourist facilities and restaurants of a medium-high standing, especially in the capital town of Ponta Delgada.
À Terra, on the top floor of the Azor Hotel, is equipped with a josper oven which they use to cook fantastic meat dishes and to churn out pizzas made from local ingredients, while at Anfiteatro, the restaurant run by the local school for hotel, catering and tourist operators you can enjoy dishes of the “contemporary tradition” such as the Confit Beef Chop, Pink Potato Purée and Pickled Onion. The Santa Barbara Eco-Beach Resort, on the other hand, looks out onto the surfers’ favourite beach and offers a fun Azorean sushi menu.
Cozido Das Furnas is the best known speciality of the Azores. Here we are in the Furnas Valley, an inland area of the island seething with natural fumaroles. In this area, the local animal breeders used to put their lunch in a pot and bury it in a hole, leaving it to cook for hours in the heat of volcanic steam, while they were busy working in the fields. The tradition is now carried on by the local restaurants: each one has its own “private” hole in which to bury the Cozido, made up of various cuts of meat (chicken, beef, sausage, blood sausage, pork ribs) and vegetables (carrots, cabbage, potatoes, sweet potatoes and cassava), where it is left to cook for six hours. It is served at the table without any other dressing or sauce, other than the meat gravy that has formed during the cooking process, along with a sweet tasting bread called Massa Sovada. At the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel, the service lives up to its impeccable Cozido (24 Euro per person, 40 for two, with a vegetarian version available for those who prefer it).
Gorreana Tea, founded in 1883, was the first ever … and currently the only tea plantation in Europe. It is possible to visit the small factory free of charge and stop off to drink a green tea in the snack bar offering a view of the magnificent plantations.
It is impossible to return home without a gourmet souvenir. Queijada is a sort of mini-cheesecake, made from egg yolks, sugar, flour and cheese which dates back as far as 1700. Legend has it that the Spanish and German nuns from the Convent of Santo André used to adopt the egg whites to keep their hats stiff, and so invented Queijada as a way of using up the yolks. The cake shop of Adelino Morgado is one of just three places on the island where you can try these little cakes (be careful, they can be habit-forming), all strictly hand-made using around 32000 fresh eggs every week. They serve nothing but Queijadas, accompanied with a limited selection of beverages.