One of the reasons I want to find my way back to the Azores was the fresh and delicious food found all over the islands.
I feel fortunate to have lived in Davis, California, for the past four years, as we have access to some of the freshest and most sustainably farmed produce in the United States. However, the food experience in the Azores takes sustainability and fresh to a whole new level. This post is a deep dive into not only where I ate, but also some of the staples in Azorean cuisine.
Farm to Fork Freshness
Freshness is the first word that comes to mind when talking about Azorean cuisine. The Azores are an autonomous region of Portugal located in the center of the Atlantic Ocean. Being isolated in the middle of an ocean usually means expensive imports on produce and foods that aren’t traditionally grown on an island. However, the Azores upended any ideas that islands can’t be self-sufficient. So much of the produce that I ate was grown and harvested on the islands! Even produce that doesn’t naturally grow in the Azorean climate, locals have found ways to cultivate them. An example of this is the delicious pineapples grown in Ponta Delgada, which I dive into in this post.
One aspect of freshness worth noting and a true representation of the farm to fork movement is the Azores’ dairy industry. Davis is known for its cows; however, the Azores go a step further. On some islands, the cows outnumber the humans up to 14 to 1. The other unique aspect of the dairy industry that I encountered was that the farmers follow their herd to milk them. In America, it’s traditional for farmers to bring the cows to the barn to milk them and fence them within the farm’s property. In the Azores, the cows move from field to field, completely free access to the land. Farmers have milking stations on wheels that they take to wherever their cattle have decided to graze. And because the cows don’t have any constraints, sometimes they use the roadways and can cause traffic jams!
Because the dairy process from farm to table is so fast on the islands, not only is milk an incredibly important export, cheese was unlike anything I’ve ever had before. I have loved cheese for years. I’ve had goat cheese from Hawaii, plenty of Brie and Ementalers, even made my own Paneer before. Yet I have never experienced a cheese as fresh as the ones I had in the Azores. At Restaurante Canto da Pia, in Relva, Sao Miguel Island, you can order their fresh cheese appetizer with bread. Something like the freshest mozzarella, but creamier and more delicious. I recommend eating here if you are on Sao Miguel Island and ordering off the whiteboard on the wall where specials (usually their freshest items) are featured! This family-owned restaurant was affordable, about $7-10 per entree, and highlighted the farm to table way of life found here.
Eating like the Locals
Traveling in the Azores, you can go to the bigger cities to have waiters who speak English and restaurants similar to what we have in America. Or you can go to the family-owned spots in smaller towns, such as Canto da Pia in Relva. One of the places we frequented was in the town over from our Airbnb in Achada, a buffet called Restaurante Poço Azul. This little buffet in Achadinha is one reason I think eating where the locals eat is the best way to do it. When we discovered there wasn’t a restaurant in Achada, we drove over to Achadinha to go to Poço Azul. We got there for the lunch hour, filled with locals, all speaking Portuguese, and everyone seemed to know each other. Slightly intimidated entering the locals’ domain, one of the owners greeted us and explained the all you can eat buffet price. $9.50 for freshly caught fish, pimenta moida (red pepper) chicken, an assortment of cooked vegetables, salad, and pasta. This deal was excellent and helped keep me full during all-day excursions. Oh, did I mention they also had dinner, and a filled, local glass of wine only put me out about $4?
These local spots are notable for genuinely understanding what Azorean Cuisine represents. From the fresh produce that is sustainably grown on the islands, to the thousands of cows roaming the streets, I’ve only neglected to speak about the islands’ most apparent ingredient. The seafood straight from the Atlantic Ocean! I made sure to eat as much seafood as I could during this trip, wanting to take full advantage of my proximity to the Atlantic. From fresh-caught tuna, octopus, species I was unsure of due to language barriers, and more, it was a delicious experience. At Peter’s Cafe in Horta, I had a “seafood tower” that consisted of shellfish and veggies. It was a delightful and fun display of food. At Canto da Pia, I had a perfectly cooked swordfish with some of that fresh cheese. As someone who loves cooking, these islands provided some excellent ideas for recipes, and I’m looking forward to sharing some seafood ones as well in the future.
Volcanic Wine and Milky Alcohol
Just like in California, food and wine go hand in hand in the Azores. However, in the Azores, specifically on Pico Island, a different approach to growing grapes is taken. You see rows and rows of grapes in California, usually on vines where the plants are off the ground and planted on specific soils. Pico Island’s grapes are grown straight on the volcanic ground of Mount Pico. And when I say ground, I legit mean the hard volcanic rock ground. What’s also impressive is how the “vineyard” is divided up by hand stacked rock walls, no putty or gluing agent to keep them from falling. I like wine, but I am no wine connoisseur and can’t tell you the delicacies or notes. I’ll direct those interested in this unique wine to this post on the Portugalist.
Wine isn’t the only alcohol that is famous in the Azores. Licores, or liqueurs in English, are made in a wide variety of flavors on the islands. With the plethora of produce, you can find everything from blackberry, banana, passionfruit, even Ponta Delgada‘s famous pineapples! However, the most unique flavor of licor I came across was the Licor de Leite, or milk liqueur. This translucent alcohol has notes of caramel and vanilla. I recommend taking a bottle home to open and try with your friends! It’s good as a shot with dessert, or in a cocktail like this twist on an Old Fashioned.
Pimenta Moida: Spicy and Sweet and All Purpose
Finally, circling back to food, the Azorean cuisine has a signature ingredient that won me over, so much that I recently bought a second jar of it. Pimenta Moida is a spicy red pepper sauce with a slight sweetness commonly used in Azorean cuisine. Whether used to marinate fish or meat, added to stews, or even served on bread with Azorean fresh cheese, I couldn’t get enough of it during my trip. Most restaurants I ate at had some dish that used this sauce. I have used it to marinate, add a bit of spice to dishes (I have a weak spice tolerance), and make red sauces more complex.
One large regret was not buying more of it while I was in the Azores. I bought a jar of Pimenta Moida at a gift shop before I left; however, I used it all up recently and was sad as CoVID-19 meant there was no way to fly back to get more. One late night search later, I discovered Portugalia Marketplace. Located out of Boston, Massachusetts, you can order Azorean and Portuguese products that they stock and shipped to your home. My favorite version of Pimenta Moida is Dona Pimentinha. I will be posting a recipe on the blog using it soon!
There is a lot of uniqueness when it comes to Azorean cuisine. I didn’t get to visit Sao Jorge, famous for its island’s cheese and coffee; nor did I get the opportunity to eat at Restaurante Terra Nostra on Sao Miguel, where your meal is buried in a hot spring hole and cooked in the ground. The only tea plantation in Europe, Gorreana Chá, is in the Azores (I did buy some Peppermint Black Tea for home). All of this is why I am dying to go back to the Azores and hopefully be one of my first trips once international travel resumes.
This will wrap up this 3 part series talking about the Azores, for now. I most likely will revisit the Azores again, talking about some of the activities you can go experience. I will be posting the Swordfish Pimenta Moida recipe in the coming week, so I think you can subscribe to the blog below, or follow us on Instagram or Youtube to know when that’s coming! Can’t wait to talk about one of my other trips from last year next!
Thanks and DFTBA, Alex~