Food of the Azores

The Azores are quickly rising in the ranks as a vacation destination for Europeans and Americans. While it is no secret that Portuguese and many Europeans have been visiting for quite some time, the Azores are a relatively recent “discovery” for many Americans.

The Azores are a volcanic archipelago of Portuguese-owned islands in the northern Atlantic, well off the western coasts of Europe and northern Africa. As volcanic islands, they’re very similar to Hawaii in topography and geology, only more temperate and with seasonal changes. There are elevated volcanic crater lakes, hot springs, sequoia forest hikes, waterfalls, gorgeous black sand beaches and incredible mountain and cliff views all over the place.

It’s a short flight to the Azores from Boston (4hrs). My wife and I became obsessed with the idea of going when we saw an episode of one of Bourdain’s shows set on the islands, so over the Summer we took a trip to the Azores (Sao Miguel) with my sister, my brother in law and their kids. Let me give you a run-down of the trip, focusing chiefly, of course, on the food.

DAY 1

Our first stop was in a little coffee shop for some caffeine fuel. Coffee is a big part of the culture here, and lots of people hang out in these little shops for pastries and espresso before work or heading out for the day.

We did some hiking up near a volcanic crater lake.

Yes, these are Giant Sequoias.

After working up a good appetite we ate at Tony’s Restaurant in Furnas, a place that’s known for serving a traditional Azorean meat stew called cozido.

The story is that this stew of meats is cooked in a cauldron that’s heated by lava rocks and/or the source of all the volcanic hot springs in the area. Here’s what the plate looked like:

Like many traditional stews, it contains a variety of meats. This featured a mix of pork belly, sausage, blood sausage, and lean meat. We pretty much ignored the cabbage and potatoes.

We also tried another Azores specialty, limpets.

Limpets are shellfish. They’re often served cooked, and taste like a cross between a mussel, a scallop and a clam, only a little tougher. A mossy vegetation beard grows on their outer shells like mussels, so unless they are scrubbed clean before cooking, they can have a very briny and “right from the sea” flavor (but not in a good way – more like in a stagnant water kind of way). I think I would have liked these better if they had been thoroughly scrubbed and then cooked in butter, garlic and wine, like I do with Little Neck clams, JUST until they pop open so as not to overcook.

Another item that’s popular in the Azores is blood sausage. You saw some up in the cozido, but those were stewed. These were grilled to a delicious crisp and served with grilled pineapple. Absolutely delicious, and who would have guessed those two were such a nice pairing? The sausage was smooth in texture, not grainy, iron-flavored or filled with rubbery chunks of shit meat.

Tony’s also had a great selection of local cheeses. The cheese industry is huge in the Azores. In the countryside you will see tons of cow pastures and dairy operations.

I was really excited to try these, and they were all awesome, especially that farmer’s cheese on the right, which is typically served with a spicy pimento pepper sauce (peri peri).

Oh yeah – we also tried a bunch of Azorean and Portuguese wines. The Azores is known for its “Green Wines.” They’re not a different colored grape in any way. They’re just sourced from a particular area, geographically. The one we tried tasted like young white wine.

Since I generally like reds, I wasn’t a huge fan. I was, however, a big fan of the reds we came across here in the Azores – especially the price point. More on that in a bit…

After dinner we hunted some rainbows that were forming when the sun poked through he rain clouds (up in the mountains there is generally a more overcast and temperate atmosphere, hence the wildly different foliage and vegetation).

DAY 2

We started again at a small coffee shop, this one called Senhora do Pao (a little more common as a chain).

This time we consumed a variety of pastries along with our coffee. This one here, pastel de nata, is an egg custard in a crusty, flaky baked crust.

A croissant style doughnut with chocolate icing and sugar cream filling.

And this was like a chocolate and phyllo sandwich.

This was a beach day though, so we soaked up some rays and drank some refreshing Sagres beers on the shore at Bar Praia de Agua de Alto. Sagres tasted like a Corona or a Bud Light. The Radler is lemon flavored.

We even tried some local gin. Very nice.

On our way home from the beach we stumbled upon a festival going on in one of the hilltop towns called Agua de Pau.

Those were strawberry and pineapple swirls of syrup on the soft serve vanilla. Awesome. But what really got my attention was this:

A vendor selling lupini beans.

What’s so great about a bucket of beans, you ask?

When my siblings and I were kids, our parents used to give us these to snack on. I always thought it was an Italian thing, but when we were in Italy I don’t recall seeing them anywhere (though we didn’t go any further south than Rome). For $0.60 we got the equivalent of what costs about $5 in the US.

They’re disc-shaped and enclosed in a soft shell. You squeeze them to get them out. Then you munch away. They’re soft but with a slight crunchy snap. Usually stored in a brine water, they’re a little salty.

I was so psyched about that.

DAY 3

On this day we went up to a beautiful old volcanic crater that became a lake called Lagoa do Fogo.

So fucking beautiful.

We hiked for a bit in the mountains too, to another hidden lake.

We also visited a tea plantation called Cha Gorreana.

We tried some tea, of course, some more pastries, and the Portuguese equivalent of empanadas. Everything was delicious.

After more driving and sight seeing, we ate at a restaurant near our apartment called Paladares da Quinta.

This was an assorted sausage platter – again featuring blood sausage and pineapple. These were superior to the other ones. So crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. Awesome.

We also did some cheeses.

As you can see, the farmers cheese was again served with that pimento sauce.

Garlic bread with herbs.

Octopus stew. We learned pretty quickly that stews are a big part of Azores cuisine.

Pork belly and clam stew. Also delicious.

This was a steak covered with melted cheese and topped with ham, served with fried eggs and French fries. This was similar to “Loco Moco” in Hawaii (which is curious, since Sao Miguel was very similar to Maui in many ways, physically and geologically).

Chocolate cake.

Crepe wrap with ice cream inside.

Very affordable for all that we ordered.

DAY 4

We spent our fourth day taking in the sites on the eastern and northern sides of the island, landing at a beach called Praia dos Moinhos.

I really liked this beach, mainly because there was a kickass beach restaurant called O Moinho Terrace Cafe that served up some decent burgers and boozy slushee drinks.

The burger won some local awards.

Here’s the view from the restaurant:

The burger needed some work to hang with the big guns of NYC, but overall I was happy with it. The atmosphere sells it too.

That night we ate in Ponta Delgada, at a restaurant called Rotas do Vinho. Melon and prosciutto:

Potato chips for the kids:

Wine for the grown ups:

Cod:

And then some ice cream at a place called Abracadabra.

Day 5

On this day, we hit the northwest side of the island, and went up to Sete Cidades, another crater lake area. We had crazy overcast and rain, however, so we didn’t get any gorgeous vista photos. Instead, we explored an abandoned 1980’s hotel called Monte Palace. I would wager that these photos are more interesting anyway:

We ate at a restaurant called Brisa do Mar in Mosteiros. My wife had the winning dish; a plate of grilled sardines.

I went with something more basic – chicken and sausage with fries.

We checked out the beach there too, which was really view-worthy. There were surfers and boogie boarders all over.

There was a stray dog:

We hit the beach for one last hoorah before the sun set on our final full day in paradise:

On two of the nights here (night five being one of them) we ate dinner at home in the apartment. We hit the grocery store and recreated some of our favorite dishes to snack on.

Great local brewery – there were five or six varieties:

Our favorite wine, $3 and amazingly smooth:

Spicy lupini beans:

Sauce of the Gods:

We also crushed some welcome pastries and booze that the apartment owners left for us. Very nice gesture, and we were able to eat whatever we wanted from their garden out back.

The next morning before heading to the airport, we had one last coffee in Ponta Delgada and tried some panini ham and cheese type specialties at a place called Azores Forever.

That about does it. The Azores really excels in cheeses, pastries and breads, stews, seafood and, of course, lupini beans! I really would love to go back. It’s just a four hour flight from Boston.

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