Road Trip: Azores ~ We didn’t know much about the food in the Azores but off we went, looking forward to whatever culinary adventures we could find. We landed in the middle of a weeklong street festival and ended up following the footsteps of Anthony Bourdain – it was all delightful.
We were there last summer (August 2016) as part of a reef fish survey project for REEF, the Reef Environmental Education Foundation. Our group of 8 volunteer scuba divers and 2 scientists, at the invitation of the government and university, made two dives a day counting fish. We spent the rest of our time working on our surveys, sharing what we were learning and touring the island of Faial. We prepared for the underwater surveys by studying what we could find about the fish populations of these isolated, mid-Atlantic islands but other than a little online reading, we didn’t do much research about the food.
Five of us rented a house on the Horta hillside with a marvelous view of Pico Island and from the back, access to the adjacent grocery store. A few steps out the back gate and I could make multiple daily trips to purchase everything from wine and fish to local cheeses, breads and fruits, including the most delicious melon we have ever eaten.
I asked a friend who is married to a Portuguese woman to give me an example of breakfast and he suggested finding a good cheese – he liked the combination cow and sheep’s milk (queijo vaca e ovelha) – and eating it on bread with marmelada, a paste made from quince. I had no idea what cheese to buy but the store had plenty of choices so we tried several; the favorite was a mild and smooth cheese that was so good with the chewy bread and not-overly-sweet marmelada.
The waterfront restaurants of Horta were a 10-minute walk downhill from our house and our experiences there were varied and interesting. Everyone said try the limpets (lapas) so our first meal out was at a seafood restaurant (whose name I can’t remember). I didn’t eat them – they looked interesting but the reviews from those who indulged were mixed. The seared tuna was beautiful. We would have gone back for another meal but could never get another reservation.
A couple of the other restaurants that we tried were a little touristy. Peter Cafe Sport, on the waterfront, was ok. The shish kabob was over the top in the presentation but lacked a bit in flavor. Peter’s is a famous place, known for its many gin & tonic choices and a museum upstairs, so its worth going in, at least for a drink and a dish of the marinated beans, tremoços. The beans are salty and garlicky, perfect with drinks. Anthony Bourdain stopped in for a drink here on one of his shows.
The popular place Canto da Doca featured cook-it-yourself meals on hot volcanic stones – a novelty and a fun place to experience as a group, but it wasn’t a great meal otherwise.
Our favorite meals were at small, local places that only had a few tables and limited non-English menus. We had tasty seafood dishes and learned the pitfalls of Google translate. Although I must say that the translation of Colchão de Noiva to “mattress bride” was enough to make us try the dessert:
We lucked up – our trip overlapped with the beginning of a festival of food, handicrafts and folkloric dance exhibitions, music, regatttas and Semana do Mar, Sea Week – which was everything remotely tied in to the nautical heritage of the islands and then some. Several nights, we opted to eat from the line of temporary cafes and food stalls set up along the waterfront. We bought a plate of giant fava beans for a Euro and ate them as we wandered around.
Our favorite stall had the worst sign ever – an image of a singed, roasted pig flying over an outline of a map of Faial. This was not appetizing but it did make its point: roast pork, which was excellent. The bean and pork soup was so delicious and there was no resisting the dessert, Honey Pie. After dinner, and in spite of the honey pie, we stopped at the doughnut stall for a bag of fresh, hot doughnuts.
Another bit of luck was meeting up with Norberto Serpa, owner of the dive operation, Norberto Diver. In addition to joining our dives and showing us almost every fish on our wish lists, Norberto hosted a weekly cookout on the docks by his dive shop. He supplied the grill and fish – everyone else could “bring something or bring nothing – just show up” – it was a fun opportunity to eat, drink and meet locals and other customers.
We asked Norberto if we could dive across the channel off Pico Island, so near the end of the week he suggested that we bring shoes, shirts and lunch money to have lunch on Pico, between dives. What we thought would be a quick stop at some waterfront cafe turned into a delightful 4-hour adventure. Norberto pre-arranged for a rental van and took us on a driving tour along the coast, ending up at the small Cafe/Bar O Galeão. On the way, he polled us on whether we wanted fish or beef and called ahead but I don’t know why they bothered. Once we sat down, we were met with a steady procession of dishes, served family style, that covered it all: black-eyed pea with tuna salad, beefsteak, ham, fried fish, stewed chicken gizzards, stewed octopus, boiled potatoes, carrots and broccoli, green salad, fruit platter and desserts ending with a cheese platter and selection of local liqueurs.
No one could move, much less think about making another dive, so we scattered under trees and along rock walls and napped.
The afternoon wasn’t over. Norberto roused us from our sunny slumbers and suggested a walk, which just happened to end up at his house. Yes, this is the same house where he entertained Anthony Bourdain during a 2009 season show of No Reservations on the Travel Channel! He’s renting the house out now to a couple of young scientists but we stopped in so he could show us around and to pick a bag of zucchini and tomatoes. “For my wife,” he explained.
On the way back to the boat we stopped to see the UNESCO World Heritage vineyards where grape vines have been cultivated since the islands were first settled in the 15th century. The plots, called currais, are protected from the wind by lava rock walls. We can attest to the quality of the wines produced here – we tried quite a few during our stay.
After our stay in the Azores, we traveled on to Lisbon – I’ll save those pictures for another post. If you’re interested in seeing a little more of my non-food pictures from Faial, check out my other blog post: http://www.pondpeeps.com/road-trip-azores/