SÃO MIGUEL — In the back corner of the Mercado de Graça, an indoor public market in the heart of this island’s old-world capital city of Ponta Delgada, the daily catch is splayed out in an endless line, a rainbow-colored assortment ranging from the bluish chicharros miúdos to the spiny, bright red cantaro. While the variety is impressive, you would expect that fish would be plentiful on São Miguel, the largest of the nine lush volcanic islands in the middle of the Atlantic that make up the Azores. But if you look around this bustling mercado, you’ll find clues indicating how surprising — and remarkably complex — the cuisine and agricultural output of the Azores can be.
Take, for instance, the multiple stands that sell only pineapples. São Miguel is a nontropical island whose climate in the cooler months has more in common with the United Kingdom than with the pineapple powerhouse of Costa Rica. Yet somehow São Miguel specializes in the cultivation of luminescent, fragrant, juicy pineapples. The resourcefulness of the Azorean people is behind the unlikely success with pineapples, just as it’s responsible for the island’s current distinction as being the only producer of commercial tea in Europe.
When they were discovered 500 years ago — long before they became an autonomous region of Portugal — the Azores were uninhabited. Across the centuries, in the face of geographic isolation, economic hardship, and volcanic eruption, the island-dwellers had no choice but to be resourceful. Whereas “nose to tail” is all the rage in US cuisine right now, it was always key to surviving here. The people of the Azores couldn’t afford to waste even a pig’s ear. These days their cuisine displays an appealing blend of that resourcefulness with the rich supply of local beef, dairy, fish, and other foodstuffs that come from living on fertile land in the middle of the ocean.
Tourists who make the four-hour flight from Boston to Ponta Delgada come for the breathtaking beauty of the islands, each with its own unspoiled charm. But more and more, they are staying for the food.
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How did a place where winter temperatures range from the low 50s to the mid-60s become a big pineapple producer? The fruit, which in the Azores is smaller than what we’re used to and comes bursting with a floral-quality flavor, originally arrived from Central and South America as an ornamental plant. Not surprisingly, the Azoreans figured out a way to overcome the obstacles their local weather dealt. The secret to growing pineapples in this climate is to use greenhouses (or “estufas” in Portuguese). These estufas are found all over the island, and some are open to visitors. They shelter the pineapples for their 18-month life cycle. Ten or 11 months in comes an unusual step: The greenhouses are deliberately filled with smoke from burning leaves and branches. This “fumo” protocol has its roots in an accidental greenhouse fire many years ago. It forces all the plantings to flower simultaneously, making it much easier to gather the fruit come harvest time. Once again, the Azoreans’ resourcefulness paid big dividends.
As for tea, São Miguel’s mild, humid climate, with its pollution-free Atlantic breezes and mineral-rich soil, provides ideal growing conditions. Camellia sinensis was discovered growing wild in the Azores, and in the 1870s commercial production began. In the rolling hills of green tea plants on the north coast, you can take a tour at Gorreana Tea Plantation. You’ll learn about black and green tea production, as well as the distinctions between tea grades, based on leaf size and location on the branch. At this tea factory the leaves are still hand-sorted by a group of hairnetted women working around a communal table groaning with a mountain of leaves. At the end of the tour, there’s a chance to sample the different styles of tea. The Gorreana Pekoe is slightly milder and less bitter than your average cup of Lipton, and the green is bright and refreshing.
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When it comes to eating Azorean cuisine, these days the islands offer the chance to enjoy it either old-school or contemporary style. A five-minute ride from downtown Ponta Delgada, Cais 20 is of the old-school variety. This oceanfront restaurant has laminated menus, rustic wooden tables and chairs, and ceramic tiling. The incredibly fresh seafood, like simple, perfectly batter-fried island grouper, more than makes up for the sparse decor. The mouthwatering, light-textured blood sausage appetizer is another standout.
At Costaneria in Ribeira Quente on the southeastern shore, seafood is the star again with small, whole, batter-fried chicharros (blue jack mackerel). The sweet fish are served with a spicy molho de vilão sauce, made from a very typical Azorean condiment called massa de pimiento, a spicy, salty, and sweet pepper paste. Red-wine-braised octopus is another good choice.
Restaurants on São Miguel also feature delicacies from the other Azorean islands. Wines from Pico, Terceira, and Graciosa are mostly white, with some light reds as well. A buttery cheese from São Jorge is semi-hard, mild, and memorable. With such a bounty of agricultural products and seafood, combined with spectacular scenery and outdoor adventures, it’s no surprise that the archipelago has recently caught the eye (and the video cameras) of celebrity chefs Anthony Bourdain and Ming Tsai. (Full disclosure: I work as a culinary producer on Tsai’s public television show.)
True “terroir” and island ingenuity are behind the most famous dish in the eastern São Miguel town of Furnas: “cozido.” In Portuguese cooking, “cozido” means “cooked,” and indeed this dish slow cooks for six to seven hours, but not by conventional means. The volcanic ground cooks and flavors the dish, harnessing the geothermal energy of one of Furnas’s fumeroles, which dot the town along with geysers and hot springs, spewing steam and sulfur. Thirty different springs produce 30 flavors of mineral water. A public park on the lake, Lagoa das Furnas, sports up to 40 cement-lined holes dug into the hot (176-212 degrees Fahrenheit) earth and these pits are a natural oven for cozido.
Chef Paulo Costa assembles cozido in the spotless kitchen of his family’s restaurant, Caldeiras & Vulcões in Furnas. Cozido runs in Costa’s veins — his grandfather made the dish as a hobby before passing his knowledge on to Paulo’s parents. Costa prepares cozido for his guests, arriving at the lake as early as 4:30 a.m. on a summer Sunday to lay claim to a hole so that the cozido is ready for his lunch guests.
The meat (beef, chicken, pork, pig’s feet, pig’s shank, and, yes, pig’s ear) goes at the bottom of a large stock pot lined with cloth. The meat goes in first so it will be closer to the heat source. The vegetables (garlic, onions, carrots, sweet potato, potato, cabbage, and kale) go in next. The locally-made spicy sausage, chouriço, is placed on top so that its pungent flavor will seep down into the other ingredients. Blood sausage (morcela) is wrapped in foil to prevent it from exploding and coloring all the other ingredients. Locally grown taro root is baked separately and added later.
Costa secures the inner cloth, lids the pot, and wraps a second cloth around the stockpot, knotting it at the top with a heavy rope. Then he heads over to the lake. After using the rope to lower the pot into the earth, he places a wood cover over the hole and then shovels volcanic dirt on top to keep the earth’s heat in. Just before lunch, Costa returns and unearths the steaming pot, bringing it back to his kitchen. The cozido is fantastic. All that steam cooking leaves the meat extraordinarily tender, and the vegetables are fully infused with the spicy chouriço and the earthy sulfur this terroir provides.
While the cozido relies on a heat source that is prehistoric, other restaurants are putting a thoroughly modern spin on the Azorean meal. Anfiteatro, the teaching restaurant at the Escola de Formaçao Turística e Hoteleira, is one example. Under the sure hand of executive director Filipe Rocha, this waterfront restaurant with sleek lines and cherry wood hues serves the same items available at the nearby Ponta Delgada mercado but here they are presented with a fresh twist. Among the creative offerings are an Azorean pineapple and nutmeg martini; soy confit squid with lupine salad and beet foam; Azorean beef carpaccio; and ice cream made with that memorable São Jorge cheese. All these dishes showcase native products in a way that suggests a strong culinary future.
Old school or contemporary, be sure to taste, smell, and savor all the flavors of the Azores. But maybe skip the pig’s ear. While it’s flavorful, it remains, even after seven hours of cooking, a bit too leathery.