Get Cultured: The Azores, An Artisanal Guide To Portugal’s Exotic Islands
By Jessica Festa
While there’s much to explore in the Azores — hiking, bird watching, surfing, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, history — one of the focuses of my recent trip there was local artisan culture. After visiting the islands of São Miguel, São Jorge and Pico, here are what I found to be the most worthwhile artisan experiences for culture carnivores:
1. Visit Europe’s Only Tea Plantations
São Miguel boasts being the only place in all of Europe where you’ll find tea plantations. There are actually two on the island, both within a 10-minute drive of each other. I visited Gorreana Tea, a family-operated business since 1883 that takes pride in growing organic tea leafs.
Visitors can wander the plantation and factory free of charge, learning how the machines work, sampling tea (the green has a floral, non-bitter flavor) and perusing a gift shop showcasing local products like homemade jams and fruit liqueurs. They make both green and black teas, which I learn are from the same plant, Camellia sinensis; however, while black tea goes through a fermentation process, green tea instead is steamed. At the moment, they’re constructing a museum to house old machines and artifacts.
Everyday at 12:30pm, you can go to Lagoa das Furnas on São Miguel to watch locals and chefs pull pots filled with meats and veggies out from the ground. These people aren’t foraging — although almost all of the meat and produce used in the Azores is grown locally — they’re using naturally occurring steam from subterranean geothermal hot springs to cook the ingredients for “Cozido das Furnas,” a typical dish in the São Miguel parish of Furnas.
After watching how the ingredients are prepared, head to Furnas Village to the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel to savor the dish for yourself — a hearty plate of beef shoulder, black pudding, pork shanks, chorizo, pork belly, pork foot, chicken, kale, cabbage, carrot, yam and potato all gowned in its own juices — before wandering the onsite 12-acre botanical gardens (€6/~$6.80 USD per person).
Terra Nostra Garden Hotel+ botanical garden, Rua Padre José Jacinto Botelho, 5, 9675-061 Furnas, Sao Miguel; +351 296 549 090
3. Meet The Pineapple Purveyors Of São Miguel Island
In Faja de Baixo on the South Coast of São Miguel Island, the A. Arruda Pineapple Plantation offers a complimentary way to explore one of the Azores most important productions. Compared to six months for Latin American pineapples, Azorean pineapples take two years to cultivate.
Pineapple culture on the islands began in the late 19th century, when the fruits were brought over from Brazil, although their nature transformed with the unique terroir. Azorean pineapples offer a more acidic, less sweet fruit — one that I quickly became addicted to, swapping my typical chocolate desserts for local pineapple cakes and mousses.
Wandering the organic plantation, where sawdust and scrap vegetation are used for fertilizer, recycled rainwater for hydration and burned banana leaf smoke for pesticide, you can peek inside the various greenhouses to see the pineapple plants in their various stages.
The highlight of the visit for me was the small onsite shop, where along with pineapple novelties and a variety of housewares and accessories they offer free samples of family-recipe pineapple liqueurs, chutneys (love the spicy one!), jam, mustard and curry.
Tip: For the best pineapple cake on the planet, head to Alcides in Ponta Delgada (Rua Hintze Ribeiro, 61/77). They cook a thick slab of fresh local pineapple against a moist gelatin-like cake topped with powdered sugar and a cherry. Yum!
A. Arruda Pineapple Plantation, Fajã de Baixo, Rua Doutor Augusto Arruda (EM 503-3) São Miguel; +351 296 384 438
4. Savor Sustainable Canned Tuna That’s Also A Social Endeavor (And Pairs With Wine!)
Santa Catarina, located right on the ocean on São George, is more than just a sustainable tuna factory; it’s a social project producing over 100 jobs for local women. They offer tours of the factory, where you’ll see workers hand-canning local Skipjack Tuna — all caught individually with a pole and hook — and adding ingredients like ecological olive oil, thyme, oregano and sweet potato to appeal to a variety of tastes. Soon, they’ll be offering tours featuring a tasting and wine pairing for a more encompassing view of the local food culture. Tours are offered Monday through Friday at 10am and 2pm, tours for $1.50 euro.
São Jorge Cheese (Queijo São Jorge) is a semi-hard to hard cheese made from unpasteurized cow’s milk specifically on the island of São Jorge — but you’ll be able to find it at restaurants all over the Azores. It’s so good it has Protected Geographical Status (PDO) certification, given only to food products of particularly high quality that are also an important part of local tradition.
There are three working cheese factories on São Jorge, although the one I explore is Uniqueijo in Beira, as they offer tours of the factory (€1.50 per person) on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but you can contact them to set up a separate time to visit (it’s easiest to have your hotel do it for you).
After dressing up in a plastic gown with shower cap and booties, I’m taken through the different phases of cheese-making in real time, from warming the milk to start a culture and adding natural coagulant, to cleaning and molding the cheeses into a perfect round shape. Cheese from every tank must be analyzed based on the shape, the outside and inside appearance and texture, the smell and the taste in a blind tasting by a member from the Confraria do Queijo São Jorge. This is because only the most perfect cheeses can get the PDO label. Realistically, though, if it’s from this island you’re likely getting a high quality product regardless.
The tour ends with a comparative tasting of a young 3-month aged cheese, which has a yellower color and more soft and salty flavor, and a 7-month aged cheese, which is slightly firmer, sharper and even a bit spicy. In fact, my guide informs me that many guests inquire if they add pepper to their older cheeses, when in fact the taste occurs naturally in São Jorge Cheese.
At Dulcores on São Jorge, visitors can savor a number of traditional sweets, all hand-made and baked in a wood burning oven. One of the most popular is espécie, named after the numerous spices that burst out of the circular cookies crust slits, especially anise.
For something booze infused and not sweet, roquilhas de aguardente consists of aguardente (aka “fire water,” alcoholic drinks with between 29% and 60% alcohol by volume), eggs and flour made into a round shape and boiled then put into the oven. Slits are cut into the crust before the pastry is re-baked so it puffs out into a flower shape.
Suspiros is a delicious lemon-laced merengue puff, while esquecidas — which means forgotten — is an uber sweet cookie you’ll forget to stop eating they’re so tasty. The Azores is a very religious destination, mainly Catholic, and a loaf of pancake-like Bolo de Vespera — reminiscent of the Body of Christ — featuring Festa do Divino Espirito Santo (Holy Ghost Festival) stamps is a great way to explore this through the palate.
Dulcore, Canada Dos Vales, Ribeira Seca, Ilha De São Jorge; +351 295 416 904
7. Explore Island Handicraft Culture
For those who want to support local women, immerse themselves in local culture and grab an authentic souvenir, head to Cooperativa de Artesanato Senhora de Encarnacao in Urzelina in the Ribeira do Nabo on São Jorge. Here you’ll find the work of five local women who create woven items, local basalt carvings, jewelry and embroidery, often crafted from recycled materials.
Some cool finds: bottle bibs showcasing local themes like cheese and marine creatures; multi-colored placemats crafted from recycled cloth cut into threads and woven together; bedspreads dyed brown with onion skins and nuts; and special renda chilena lace that looks like fishing net and is found only on São Jorge. The cooperative is open 9am-6pm during the week and Saturdays in summer, although Zelina lives next door and if you give her a call she’s happy to run over and let you in.
8. Savor Strong Coffee Paired With Comfy Bedspreads And A Great View
One unique family-run artisan experience can be found at Casa de Artesanato Nunes in Calheta on São Jorge. Alzira and her sister Carminda craft traditional hand-made bedspreads — as well as table runners, place mats, pot holders and other woven items — that you can’t get in a normal store, woven using a wooden foot pedal machine. Each bedspread takes two weeks to make, crafted mainly from natural un-dyed local sheep wool and cotton. They’re so special in terms of tradition and quality they’ve earned a government issues “Artesanato dos Acores” label.
Don’t get too sleepy, though, as after the day is over weaving she heads into her backyard to pick coffee cherries, with about 400 organically-grown coffee plants onsite. The local landscape leads to a robust, strong coffee, which you can enjoy in their onsite cafe and enjoy views of Mount Pico volcano — the highest mountain in Portugal — and the Atlantic beyond billowing laundry and brown and white houses.
Casa de Artesanato Nunes, Faja dos Vimes, 9850-213; +315 295-416-717; [email protected]
9. Go Wine Tasting On Pico Island
Not only does Pico Island make delicious wine, but many of its vineyards hold heritage importance. Within the UNESCO World Heritage wine area of Criação Velha, home to the most extensive network of vineyards on Pico Island, you can take a walk through the basalt wall-lined vineyards and do a tour, workshop or tasting at the local Wine Cooperative of Pico Island (CVIP).
The area focuses on historical grapes like Verdelho, Arinto and Terrantez do Pico, as vintners work to preserve a heritage that has been around since the first settlers arrived. To immerse yourself in this old world, drive about 15 more minutes to Lajido, where houses done in a 15th century style — simple constructions made from stone without use of concrete with small glass windows and red and green doors to signify if you were poor or wealthy, respectively — abound. Here you’ll also find a distillery-slash-museum worth checking out to see how they make liquors and fire water using old stone machines.
Also on Pico Island, you can continue driving on the north coast about 15 more minutes from Lajido to reach Santo António. In this parish resides Adega A Buraca, a distillery, tasting room and event space where the Silva family have been producing distilled aguardente and fruit liqueurs since 2007 in an old world fashion, even bottling by hand.
If you want to do a libation tasting simply show up; however, you can also have a meal and/or snacks arranged for pairing if you make a reservation in advance. A small onsite museum provides a glimpse into traditional wine-making and distilling, while a shop sells their homemade products and local handicrafts.
This article was originally published on Epicure & Culture, an online food, culture and responsible tourism magazine. With a focus on immersive, transformative and ethical experiences, the goal of the publication is to help people explore the world in a positive and life-changing way. Along with visiting their website, you can follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
This trip was sponsored by the Azores Tourism Board
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