We’re considering a visit to the Azores, a group of nine volcanic Portuguese islands in the North Atlantic. We have family friends who live there and I didn’t realize until recently that they can be reached in just under five hours via a direct flight from Boston.
One can always learn a bit more about a destination they’ve yet to explore by reading about its cuisine. Plus, eating is a part of travel that I adore. So, I present to you (thanks to tips from Visit Azores) what it’s like to eat in the Azores.
The Azores Are a Carnivore’s Paradise
The Azorean climate brings green pastures that feed the abundance of cattle on any of the nine islands. In Sao Miguel, besides cozido das Furnas another iconic meat dish is the steak with the local red pepper. In Terceira, alcatra or rump is very typical.
Rump is a way of cooking rather than a piece of beef. Alcatra (pictured at the top) consists of beef prepared in a clay bowl that bakes in a wood fired oven, traditionally served with massa sovada, an Azorean sweet bread prepared with sugar, milk and eggs.
Delicious Sweets for Days
The most prevalent sweet throughout the islands is the queijada, a tiny tartlet made from flour, egg, butter, milk and sugar. The Queijada de Vila Franca was refined by nuns in convents during the 1600s in the town of Vila Franca do Campo on Sao Miguel. Queijadas da Graciosa are star-shaped and have a caramel flavor.
And Dona Amelia on Terceira Island is baked with eggs, molasses, cinnamon and corn flour, then topped with powdered sugar. This pastry commemorates the official visit by Queen Dona Amelia to Terceira with King D. Carlos in 1901.
An Under-the-Radar Wine Destination
From Terceira Island and Pico Island comes Verdelho, a wine best enjoyed alongside the regional sausages, black pudding, cheese and cornbread. More than the name of the grape, Verdelho means the traditional fortified wine, aged in wooden barrels, made for centuries and that used to be exported all over the world. Before or after sipping, learn about the history of the regional viticulture at the Wine Museum on Terceira.
Pico Island Vineyard Culture Landscape is classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and offers rectangular plots for wine growing known as currais. The walls, handmade with volcanic rocks by the locals, protect the vineyards from the wind and sea. Azores certified wines are most of them white and liqueur wines, made from the three local and unique grapes (Verdelho, Arinto dos Açores and Terrrantez do Pico). For tasting, visit Pico Island Cooperative Wine Cellar or Buraca Wine Cellar.
Sao Jorge: A Cheese to Remember
The semi-hard cheese is named after the island on which it is made, Sao Jorge. The mild, damp climate and richly fertile soil make it an ideal location for the 20,000 dairy cows that live there. The cheesemaking dates back to when settlers moved to Sao Jorge from the Netherlands, bringing livestock and know-how for fresh style cheese to robust, aged cheese.
Sao Jorge cheese is aged between three and seven months before release. It is made by three dairies on the island and has a firm, slightly waxy texture. The flavors are mild, but full and buttery. Sao Jorge is eaten as a table cheese with a full bodied wine or added to everyday dishes. To sample and see how it is made, visit Cooperative de Lacticànios dos Lourais, a cheese factory on Sao Jorge. If you are visiting other islands, each offers their own version of fresh cheese to be eaten before meals.
Fresh Catch: Limpets, Lobsters and Clams
Grilled limpets are in high demand on the Azores, in addition to lobsters and slipper lobsters. Rumoured to be the best restaurant for limpets, dine at the Beira-Mar Restaurant in the filling village of Sao Mateus on Terceira. Do not miss the clams, which grow naturally in the lagoon of the Faja de Santo Cristo on Sao Jorge.
Throughout all of the islands, you are likely to find caldeirada de peixe, a fish and potato stew that sticks to the ribs.
The Azores have the biggest sea zone in Europe, making seafood a popular cuisine. Tuna is one of the Azores’ most popular fish. Azorean sustainable fishing techniques call for live bait and single poles as the fish cluster to help keep the fish and aquatic environment healthy.
Food and Wine Festivals in the Azores
But gastronomy in Azores is not confined to tradition. Modern Azorean cuisine is prevalent at the food festivals and celebrations.
At the end of June, Anfiteatro Restaurant in Ponta Delgada hosts the largest food festival in the archipelago: 10 Fest Azores – 10 days, 10 chefs. Chefs from Portugal, Europe and North America travel to the Azores to create their dishes inspired by local products. In 2015, 10 Fest Azores will take place from June 18-27.
The first weekend of July, Pico celebrates its vineyards with a festival called Taste in Adegas. For three days, visitors can tour the wineries, sampling local wines paired with contemporary tapas.
The first week of August, Terceira Island hosts the Atlantic Gastronomy Fair where some of the Azores’ best chefs gather to cook contemporary dishes.
It looks like the cuisine is a great reason to visit the Azores. Have you been?
Photos and tips are courtesy of Visit Azores.