The gorgeous Azores archipelago is a group of really beautiful islands right out in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. They’re Portuguese islands - Portuguese is the language spoken there, and the culture is heavily peppered with Portuguese influence. But the Islands’ unusual history, geography, topography and industry means that in the Azores food very much has its own flavour… so when you’re there, make sure to get your hands on the following...
The Azores Islands have a huge dairy industry. These are islands where cattle can flourish – lush and green and drenched in Atlantic rains. Bovine beasts are beloved here, and milk, butter and cheese are produced in huge quantities. I tried lots of local cheese on a few of the islands… but my real foodie tip is to try Queijada de Vila Franca, little sweet (but not too sweet) cheesecake pastries made in a small village on the south of Sao Miguel island. You don't have to go to that particular village to find these, but it is a gorgeous part of the island and you can combie your pastry-chasing with a little boat trip out to the town's famous islet.
One of the Azores islands, Pico, has a nickname. It’s called ‘The Island of Wine’ (because of all the wine that’s made there, in case that wasn’t immediately apparent). The unusual thing about Pico’s wine production is that the vines grow on a rocky, volcanic, inhospitable surface, on an island that’s violently windswept – it’s not even really possible to use a vine trellis here. Instead, grapes grow close to the ground, sheltered by hand-built stone walls that, when I saw them, made me think of Connemara. I’m not a white wine person, but I tasted some amazing whites here that complimented the island’s wonderful seafood perfectly – my favourite being a gorgeous crisp little number called Curral Atlantis Arinto do Açores. I recommend it, but I also recommend trying as many wines as you can. For research.
It’s not saffron, but it’s as close as a spice will get. This one is known as Safflower. It also has a nickname, but like the flower itself, this one is a little colourful… “Bastard Saffron”. Despite the slightly antagonistic nickname, this flower is much loved on the islands. It tastes very similar to its much sought-after and very expensive relative Saffron, and it even adds a similar flavour and colour – but at a fraction of the price. Definitely worth stocking up on to take home.
Did you know that the Azores has a pineapple plantation? Yep. The weather is not at all conducive to their growth, but the soil is warm and rich in the nutrients and minerals that the fruit requires, and there are ways and means to recreate temperatures... These days there are some 6000 pineapple greenhouses on Sao Miguel, the largest of the islands. Most pineapples grown are eaten there on the island, and their flavour is a little different, a little more acidic than the pineapples you’re used to. So when you’re there, make sure you visit the plantation and try the fruit at least once, because you’re unlikely to find it anywhere else. You’ll like the pineapple liqueur too.
Blood sausage is an old Azorean staple, and it’s a proper traditional food with recipes that have been passed down through generation after generation. Of course blood sausage can be found elsewhere (including Ireland where our Clonakilty version features in any self-respecting Full Irish Breakfast), but the Azorean one is… Azorean. It has its own flavours and seasoning, including local cinnamon, so it's really unique to these islands.
Azores has its very own pepper! It’s cherry-red and shaped like a big poblano pepper, and it’s just a little spicy, and its name translates as ‘pepper of the earth’. The way to at this is as the locals do; marinated in brine or olive oil and as an antipasti, or even better, slapped on top of a thick medium-rare steak.
So… not only pineapples, but tea. The Azores – Sao Miguel, to be precise, is home to Europe’s only industrial tea plantations. There are two, and they produce green and black teas. The green tea was actually discovered growing wold in the Azores in the 1750s, and has been produced there ever since. The tea here is put through an open-air drying stage, which lends the brew a unique earthy flavour that’s been kissed by salty sea air.
This is another flavour of the Azores that you simply won’t get anywhere else, mostly because it needs to be cooked slowly for 6-8 hours in the heat that comes from an active volcano. So. Try and recreate it in your fan-assisted Electrolux if you must, but it simply won’t be the same. Cozido das Furnas is a met & veg stew that contains chicken, blood sausage, pork, beef, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cabbage, and other vegetables depending on who’s cooking.
At night everything is layered into one big pot, then early in the morning it’s covered with a cloth, placed in a big hole in the ground, and buried in volcanic soil to cook in the natural heat of the caldeiras. By the time the pots are pulled up, everything inside is as tender as food can be, full of flavour, and ready to be served to whoever had the good sense to pre-order it. Remember, you need to ring ahead and pre-order it. This is not an impulse food.
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