August 4th, 2017/ BY Tod Stewart

Discover the beauty and culinary heritage of the Azores

It was after midnight — well after midnight — and the river of wine that had sluiced through the course of dinner had dried to a bare trickle, giving way to more potent potables. On hand was a typically Azorean feast of pork ribs, chouriço and morcela sausages, fried cornbread, roast chicken and the famous São Jorge cheese, made ever more delicious with cup after cup of rustic red wine and followed by the usual plethora of pastries. The mood in the packed room was festive, and though no holiday or other significant date was being observed, it was a celebration nonetheless. A celebration of food, friends, wine, song and life in general. We toasted into the morning with liberal doses of potent aguardente — the indigenous moonshine that seemingly everyone, with great pride home-distills and which is deceptively easy to drink way too much of.

I dubbed the Centro Civico da Relva (the site of the previous night’s adventure — essentially the town hall) “The House of Pain.” Not that there was anything painful about the ultra-affordable and delicious meals it regularly hosts, it’s just that aguardente, when consumed in bulk, can make the following morning a bit, well, slow.

Relva, a 12-square-kilometre civil parish, lies just west of Ponta Delgada, the largest municipality and capital city of São Miguel — itself the largest of the nine islands that make up the Azores archipelago. Technically part of Portugal, the volcanic Azores bob in the North Atlantic, about a five-hour flight from Toronto and a two-hour one from the Portuguese mainland. Officially the Região Autónoma dos Açores, its inhabitants don’t really equate themselves with their mainland brethren, choosing instead to remain independent-minded and culturally distinct.

Though the “evening” at the Centro Civico wrapped up very late, the day had begun considerably earlier. With wine, beer, food, and other essentials (like aguardente … groan) firmly secured on the back of our trusty burro, Pasqual, we trekked slowly down a sheer oceanside cliff leading to a summer house in the area of Rocha da Relva. The lodging had been in the hands of my friend Nelia’s family for generations (she was born on the island). Nelia and her hubby, Taras, visit the island regularly. I was fortunate enough to be invited on their most recent jaunt to live the Azores life in a decidedly non-touristy manner.

As we moved ever closer to the rocky coastline below, I took in the slightly surreal surroundings. Seemingly ancient stone homes appeared to grow out of the steep incline, their chimneys wafting fragrant wood smoke. Somewhat fittingly, Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita” also wafted out of the open window of one home. A lone skin diver, sheathed in black neoprene, patrolled the dark waters past the breakers like a territorial sea lion. Seabirds wheeled as the morning sun glinted off the rippling grey surf. Fruit and vegetable gardens flourished in precariously terraced plots that, defying gravity, clung to the steeply angled slope.

Pasqual seemed not to share my wonderment. He’d done this route more times than he probably cared to remember so was trudging ahead with the stoic/stubborn indifference that only an overburdened beast of burden could muster.

The day was spent relaxing by the ocean, enjoying libations and a lunch of grilled chicken, pork and various sausages expertly prepared by Nelia’s Uncle Humberto. As the sun began to dip, we loaded up Pasqual and began a somewhat weary ascent up the cliffside, pausing every once and a while to massage aching legs and catch a breath, the anticipation of the evening ahead at the Centro Civico with Nelia’s extended family and Relva locals keeping us fuelled.

 

 

As a destination, the Azores have much to offer. In fact, tourism has become an increasingly important source of revenue for the region, along with agriculture, dairy farming, livestock ranching and fishing. As one of the top whale- and dolphin-watching sites in the world, you can, depending on the season, encounter some 20 different species, both resident and migrant. And the sights on land are as stunning as those in the water. Black sand beaches, soaring mountains that plunge into jade and azure lakes, bubbling sulphurous hot springs, the only European tea plantations and vast expanses of vivid hydrangeas are just a few of the spectacular visuals you are likely to encounter. The weather of the region is relatively mild for such a northerly location, thanks largely to the proximity of the Gulf Stream. Most of the houses in Relva don’t have central heat.

Gourmands visiting the Azores will fill their plates — and glasses. Abundant seafood, top-quality local beef and pork, excellent cheeses and dairy products, some rather exotic fruits (including the unique Azores pineapple) and vegetables can be found almost everywhere. And since dining out is very easy on the pocketbook, exploring the local cuisine in neighbourhood establishments is the way to go. (Though if you have the good fortune of getting to know some of the residents, as I did, you can’t beat an authentic, home-cooked Azores meal.) There are also a number of wineries in the region. While winemaking is certainly not new to the Azores, the area has only fairly recently begun focusing on producing wines of world-class calibre. Most wineries are concentrated on the island of Pico, but we heard there was one not too far from where we were staying on São Miguel. Finding it, however, proved a bit tricky.

We set off to scout out the mysterious winery after lunch at Bar Caloura, in the coastal town of Caloura, east of Ponta Delgada. Octopus salad was followed by the fresh fish of the day; in our case, barracuda, bluefish and lingcod, all seared to perfection. We chose a local white — the Curral Atlantis 2014 from Pico — as the match. A blend of Verdelho and the indigenous Arinto dos Açores, the wine was aromatically floral, with mineral, anise notes that mingled with the briny ocean air. Its medium-full zesty/briny/citrus flavours matched well with the meaty, slightly smoky fish.

After passing through downtown Ponta Delgada, we soon found ourselves motoring along narrow roads that undulated through the countryside. Cows grazed high up on the hillsides while expanses of green Camellia sinensis (aka, tea) slinked over the distant landscape.

Eventually we hit the parish of Fenais da Luz, on the island’s north side. Navigating the roads required a bit of etiquette. Taras explained that because of the narrow streets, if a car is heading towards you and there is also a parked car on the side you are driving on, it is polite (and safer) to yield to the oncoming vehicle. Playing “chicken” is not advised.

We drove, seemingly in circles, searching for the mysterious winery. Asking one of the locals about it drew a blank stare. Finally, with the aid of modern technology, we found Quinta da Jardinete. We had actually driven past it a couple of times already since nothing about it seem to shout “winery.” From the road, the main building — a whitewashed, two-storey affair — could have passed for a local inn. The vineyards themselves were hidden behind a wall made from volcanic stone that completely enveloped them. (I was to learn latter that these enclosures are called currais, and that they are quite typical of Azores vineyards. They protect the vines from wind and radiate heat at night.)

After being greeted warmly by Mario Rebelo, the operation’s viticulturist, viniculturist, bottler, labeller and essentially “Jack of all trades” (“doctor and engineer” was how he put it), we proceeded to tour the unique property, which dates back to 1750. Rebelo revealed that they had selected specific vine clones that sport looser bunches to allow for better air circulation since humidity and the moulds that accompany it are among the biggest drawbacks of grape-growing in a sub-tropical climate. The four hectares of vineyards were planted with both noble and native grape varieties, including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Tempranillo and Merlot, to name a few.

After tasting some tank samples — and buying a few bottles to take with us — we headed back to Relva for a family dinner with Uncle Humberto and Aunt Luisa. Here I was introduced to another home-made Azores specialty: vinho abafado. Grapes are left to ferment for about 24 hours before being fortified with aguardente and then aged. The white version, made from the native Verdelho, was fragrant, with flower blossom and peach overtones and a slightly spritzy, crisp and sweet but zesty flavour profile. The red counterpart was intensely grapey, with hints of raisin and baking spice.

I was also treated to a flight of Cousin Vasco’s hand-crafted liqueurs, which he had made by infusing fresh fruits and spices in aguardente for three months or so. And, once again, I was plied with straight aguardente, this time Humberto’s signature house version. Bottled at 45 percent ABV, the spirit was perhaps the best of the (a)lot I tried on São Miguel — clean and spicy with a distinctive smokiness, reminding me a bit of a light mezcal.

 

 

The rest of our time on “The Green Island” (as São Miguel is referred to locally) was spent visiting local sites and attractions, always with gastronomic diversions.

Having spent some time taking in the spectacular gardens and views from the Miradouro da Ponta do Sossego and Miradouro da Ponta da Madrugada on the island’s east coast, we hit Restaurante Mariserra for a fantastic seafood lunch featuring fresh crab, stuffed squid and the island’s famous lapas (“limpets”) a type of sea snail served grilled with a garlic and butter dressing. A visit to the village of Furnas brought us face to face with the eerie, boiling, smouldering caldeiras that dot the area. It also allowed us to hit Restaurante O Miroma to dig into a local specialty: cozido, essentially a vegetable and meat stew that is cooked using the heat from these volcanic springs.

After checking out the lush Miradouro Lagoa do Canário and the glorious Lagoa das Sete Cidades (“Lagoon of Seven Cities”) with its twin crater lakes — Lagoa Azul (“blue lagoon”) and Lagoa Verde (“green lagoon”), named after the colour of the water in each — we dropped into Casa do Bife O Galego for a sampling of the incredible regional beef tenderloin served with garlic, peppers and frites and crowned with a fried egg. We also managed to cram in visits to the island’s Fabrica de Licores Mulher de Capote distillery and a local cigar manufacturing factory, all the while enjoying drinks on numerous outdoor patios along with additional helpings of Azores cuisine.

Unfortunately I had to leave the company of my friends — and my newly acquired “family” — early to fly back to Toronto, unpack, do laundry, repack, sleep, and catch a flight to Argentina 24 hours later. I begrudgingly left the beauty of São Miguel — namely, its tantalizing food and drink and its warm hospitality — with a notebook full of memories, a strong desire to return and, of course, a bottle of aguardente.