I’m leaning against a fence, watching steam rise from the ground and inhaling the eggy stench of sulphur. Nearby, a large sign screams in three languages, “Be Careful: Natural Boiling Water!” Suddenly, a line of vans pulls into the dirt driveway. Men jump out, wearing heavy boots and carrying shovels, ready to dig.
This is how lunch is prepared on the Azores, a cluster of nine lush volcanic islands off the coast of Portugal. Because here on the island of Sao Miguel, locals have perfected the art of using volcanic heat to slow cook their stews in the ground.
Most Portuguese households use the stove to make cozido, a traditional stew simmered in a hefty stock pot. There’s also a science to its preparation: the pot is carefully layered in sequence, which serves to roast the ingredients to a tee. First, pork, chicken, and beef line the bottom, the hottest spot in the pot. Next, a second tier of onions, cabbage, kale, garlic, and root vegetables is added, followed by locallymade chorizo on top. As the sausage cooks, the juices seep down onto the bottom layers, drizzling the ingredients in spicy flavours. Finally, a blood sausage is wrapped in foil or a kale leaf and thrown in the pot.
But in the Azorean town of Furnas (Portuguese for “fire”), the volcano does much of the cooking. In the lakeside section of the park, the ground is dotted with forty or so cement-lined pits – each dug into the scalding earth to act as a natural oven for cozido.
Every morning at dawn, local residents and restauranteurs drive to the Furnas Valley with cauldrons filled with hearty stews. In their assigned pit, each individual buries their pot in the earth, wrapping a cloth and a heavy rope around its body. Gently, the pot is lowered into the hole using a rope; then, the pit is sealed with a wooden cover and volcanic dirt to entrap the geothermal heat.
Over six to seven hours, the stew slowly simmers in its own juices at 80 degrees Celsius or higher, until it’s roasted and ready at noontime. After the pots are unearthed, men transport the stew to the local restaurants, where hungry mouths await. At the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel, we stick our forks into the stew and feast on tender meats and vegetables, relishing the salty flavours.
Cozido is not the only exotic fare influenced by the Azorean elements. Arriving on Pico Island, it certainly doesn’t look like wine country: a 2,350-metre volcano rises from the centre, usurping the landscape. The rocky, volcanic terrain is coal black, and a salty breeze gusts over the isle. Seemingly poor conditions for grape growing.
Remarkably, locals have learned to use grapes grown in lava rock to produce sensational red and white wines. How is this possible?
The crop is planted along the coastline and protected by currais, walls of black stone laid out in plots. Wandering the vineyard, the grapevines huddle close to the ground, shielded from wind and salt spray by the stones. It creates an arid microclimate that, when combined with nutrient-rich volcanic soil, yields exceptional ripening conditions.
“The sunshine gets trapped in the rocks,” says our guide. “It keeps the vines warm at night and promotes growth.”
I climb up an old windmill for a bird’s eye view of the vineyards. Mazes of black stone walls zig-zag across the landscape, chipped and aging, stretching to a blue strip of ocean in the distance. I notice deep a track penetrates the lava fields.
“It’s from the ox carts,” says our guide. “They used to transport the grapes and left permanent marks behind.”
It’s believed that monks brought the first verdelho grape to the Azores in the 15th century, and invented this unorthodox – but successful – wine-growing technique. Today, these black walls represent the biggest stone networks built by humans, and the wine-growing practice is so unique that it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
“We put it together like a puzzle,” says our guide, pointing to a crumbling wall. “Just find the right stone to fit with one another.”
For centuries, Pico’s wines were coveted by European countries and colonies alike – even appearing in the wine cellars of Russian Tsars. Still, Azorean locals lust over a dry, fruity wine that pairs well with seafood, as well as a vinho de cheiro (fragrant wine) that takes over tables on feast days.
For a taste (or two), we visit the Cooperativa Vitivinícola da Ilha do Pico (Pico Island Wine Cooperative). Founded in the 1950s, it’s a small cooperative of 200 growers, who harvest and exchange their grapes for product or money.
“Some prefer to be paid in wine,” says the tour guide.
Who can blame them? There’s an exquisite selection of red and white table wines; but I fancy the eight-year-old Lajido with brandy that tastes like smoked honey. Of course, there’s also the Frei Gigante white wine, widely regarded as one of the best for seafood pairings.
It’s an “under the sea” buffet on any Azorean island, with chefs featuring some marine delicacies that you’ve likely never tried. On Pico, the Petisca Tidbit House may look unremarkable, but it’s crammed full of locals feasting on sumptuous tapas. The waiter delivers a plate of erva-patinha (seaweed) and grilled limpets (a sea snail) sautéed in garlic, onion, butter, and spices. For me, it’s love at first bite.
“Everyone has a little bit of fisherman inside,” the waiter says.
His words resonate when ordering “Fish on a Stick” – skewered shrimps and white fish dangling from a hook – at Pico’s Restaurante Marisqueira Ancoradouroorde. I could spend the entire lunch hour playing with my food; but then twin plates of octopus arrive: one with deep-fried Golden Octopus and another served “Pico-style,” swimming in a lightly spiced broth.
My “dare to dine” moment happens at Restaurant Beira Mar on Terceira Island, when I dive into a platter of barnacles. The barnacle looks daunting with a green hard shell on the outside, but inside, it’s full of tender, sweet meat.
There’s one dining tradition that no one baulks at: meals always begin with Azorean cheese. Slices of Sao Jorge Island cheddar with little honey pots are served at the table. This yellow, semi-hard cheese is particularly coveted worldwide for its creamy texture and buttery flavour. I drizzle honey on each piece, adding a dash of sweet to the salty. The cheese trays are gobbled up lickety-split.
“Every millionaire tries to buy their own island paradise,” our guide says. “This is mine. We may be poor, but we’re really proud of what we have.”
Azorean gastronomy may fly under the culinary radar, but it’s a national treasure just waiting to be unearthed and savoured. However you eat or drink it, the cuisine is bound to enrich your palate (as well as your pant size).