The Azores are a tiny archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and an autonomous region of Portugal. Their location means that they are an absolute magnet for marine life viewing because they have resident whales and dolphins, as well as many migratory species, such as the blue whale, which pass close by to the islands each year. We spent a week on Sao Miguel, the largest island, enjoying whale/dolphin watching excursions as well as some activities on the island, such as mountain biking and kayaking. But we didn’t realise what a great foodie destination the islands are. In between the activities we enjoyed some fantastic food of the Azores.
We stayed in the main town of Ponta Delgada. It’s a pretty place and has all amenities within walking distance.
Cheese – Food of the Gods!
One of the things we noticed when travelling through the beautiful green countryside was the number of cows and also fields of ripening corn. The corn is actually more likely to be grown to feed cows than people.
With mild winters and lots of rain the vegetation is lush and that’s perfect for the cows who produce rich milk that is turned into cheese. We were surprised to learn that around 50% of Portugal’s cheese is produced in the Azores.
Another striking feature of the landscape is the plethora of hydrangeas that line the roads. The cows tend to ignore them so they become natural fences that look glorious in the height of summer. We visited just after they were at their best but they still looked very pretty.
There are various cheese shops in Ponta Delgada – King of Cheese and Prince of Cheese – they aren’t modest about the quality of the product!
It’s fun visiting the shops – you can let them know about your cheesy preferences and they will recommend particular flavours and offer you a sample. We were keen to bring some cheese home and they were able to vacuum pack some very large slices for us so that we could store them in our hotel fridge and get them on the flight home. They survived very well and made sure that we weren’t going to run out of cheese for several weeks.
Sao Michel has a black rind and is the premier cheese of the island we were staying on. It’s a hard, very mature cheese with a lovely sharp flavour.
Sao Jorge cheese is produced on the Azorean island of the same name. It is a semi-hard cheese made from unpasteurised milk. It is milder than the other cheeses, with a nutty flavour
Vaquinha is from the island of Terceira. This one has a surprising initial creaminess for a hard cheese but this eventually flakes slightly. It is very mature, is almost spicy and has a real kick to the flavour!
Cheese is often provided as an appetiser at restaurants but this isn’t matured cheese, it is queijo fresco. It doesn’t have the fullest of flavour, in fact it’s pretty bland, so it is served with pimenta da terra (red pepper paste) which gives it a real pzazz, and it’s eaten with fresh bread. We were able to bring back a bottle of pimento de terra home with us.
What Goes Well with Cheese? Pineapple of Course!
There is a pineapple plantation, located just outside Ponta Delgada, easily within walking distance of the city centre. You can visit the greenhouses and see the pineapples growing.
There are also some displays and videos which show the process for growing these fruit. It’s interesting that they use a smoking process to trigger the flowering of the plant.
And there’s a café on site which offers a complimentary shot of pineapple liqueur and a teeny piece of toast with pineapple jam.
And, as we hadn’t had elevenses or lunch, we thought it would be rude not to enjoy a pineapple gelato, washed down with a caipirinha, a delicious cocktail made with crushed pineapple, lime and rum.
Everything Stops For Tea
The Azores also have a tea plantation, located on the north coast of Sao Miguel. The Gorreana Tea Factory was established in 1883 and is one of only two tea plantations in Europe. It’s possible to visit the factory and do a self guided tour.
There are infographics showing how the tea is processed and you can enjoy a cup of their tea as well as visit the inevitable shop and café. They produce both green and black tea. Both taste good.
It’s lovely to be able to see the original machinery in action.
Volcanic Cozido das Furnas
The Azores are volcanic islands and some areas are still very geologically active. We enjoyed a day trip to Furnas towards the eastern end of the island.
The local town has fumeroles which regularly steam, squirt and belch hot water. The area has a distinct whiff of rotten eggs due to the sulphur. Some of the water has a yellow colour (see the photo below on the right). This is not geological but local people put in bags of corn on the cob to cook.
Taro plants, known as elephant ears, grow in the warm water. These have bulbous corms (like a tuber) which are edible and similar to sweet potatoes.
There are also some drinking fountains where you can taste the local water – it tastes very minerally and is an acquired taste for some. It’s also odd drinking warm water. These fountains are located just metres apart but the flavour of the water is surprisingly different!
Most trips take you to a viewing point to see Furnas lake, and then you descend to the lake itself. You’re not allowed to swim in the lake but it’s possible to go boating on it. And walking around the area reveals some more of the steaming landscape.
There are a number of fenced off areas containing mounds of soil with name tags. On closer inspection these tags bear the names of various restaurants. Lunch!
Every morning the restaurants prepare meat and vegetables and place them in a large pot. At 5am these pots are buried in the volcanic soil. Around six hours later a parade of vans arrive (and that’s the cue to grab a place by the fence if you want to take photos) and each restaurant owner will dig out their pots (or invite a hapless tourist to help) from the perfect slow cooker which has been cooking the food using free energy from the ground. It’s a brilliant system. And the site isn’t restricted to restaurants. Local people can hire a hole and bring their own food for a picnic/meal later in the day.
Back in town, the food is then served in the respective restaurants. A platter of meats and a platter of vegetables. (Vegetarians/vegans – the meat and veg will have been cooked together so if you want a veggie cozido, ask in advance and an unadulterated pot of pure veg can be supplied.)
The meats comprised pork, sausage, chicken, beef and blood sausage (Morcela) – all so soft and tender it could be cut with a spoon. It melted in the mouth.
The vegetables were potatoes, carrots, cabbage (which was served in large chunks so that it didn’t disintegrate during the cooking process) and the elephant ear yams.
Cozido doesn’t have any additional flavours added – the food is served just as it comes out of the pot. But while it doesn’t offer complexity, the juices of the meat provide lots of flavour and you really get to enjoy the taste of the meat and vegetables. And it really is a feast!
All washed down with local wine and a nice honey cake (if still hungry) or a slice of delicious local pineapple (if that’s all you can manage) for dessert, it filled us up for the rest of the day.
A Little Bit of Foraging
While the hydrangeas add glorious hues to the countryside and are very much welcomed, Sao Miguel has a more invasive plant – the yellow wild ginger – which is far less popular. It spreads quickly and does take over the landscape very quickly.
The local university is looking into uses for the plant and it’s looking hopeful that the fibrous leaves may be a useful material to replace use of some plastics in future. It is a good pollinator and inside the long yellow flowers is a drop of nectar. You can pick the flower, bite off the end – by a couple of centimetres – and spit that out. Then suck on the flower and you can taste the sweetness.
Dining on San Miguel – Ponta Delgada
First of all, if you want to dine at a particular restaurant, book! We visited at the end of the busy season and struggled to get a table at the best restaurants for an evening meal. At one of the restaurants we pretty much bagged the last table. We arrived five minutes before opening and people were already queuing for a walk-in but were politely turned away. Another option is to visit the restaurants at lunchtime when it should be easier to get a table.
Our favourites were Gastronomo and Michel. Both are deservedly popular and offered foods of the Azores that were local specialities. We received a very warm welcome in each place.
Gastronomo, R. da Boa Nova
Their queijo fresco and pimenta da terra were freshly made (some restaurants provide you with the cheese on a plate and a bottle of sauce) and served on a ginger plant leaf (one of the uses for the invasive plant) accompanied by home-made bread, including a sweet bread (a bit like a brioche) which was a wonderful contrast to the cheese and chilli.
We shared a starter of black pudding and local pineapple which was an absolutely delicious combination of sweet and savoury flavours. The black pudding – a blood sausage – was one of the best we have eaten.
The Azoreans have a particular way of cooking steak. Bife steak with garlic and pimento and a fried egg.
Bacalhau is not specifically Azorean but is a hugely well known Portuguese dish. It comprises salt cod, cooked with eggs and olives and served on fries.
Michel, Rua Engº José Cordeiro Antiga da Calheta
We tried Azorean limpets and local shrimp to start with. Limpets are shellfish that are incredibly common all over Europe and, although we knew they were edible, had never seen them on a menu before. They have a tougher texture than a lot of shellfish but they were tasty.
Pork and mashed yam (the elephant ears) and vegetables was utterly delicious.
As was the oven roast lamb.