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(2015 - Winter/Spring Issue)


Running out of time and stuck behind a long line of passengers laden with luggage, I asked the three men in front of me if they, too, were heading to the capital Ponta Delgada, on the island of São Miguel.

After a brief, urgent conversation in Portuguese, one of them beckoned me to follow him. We zigzagged through the line until we reached the counter, where he explained that I needed to be checked-in immediately, at least that’s what I imagined he said. Unfazed, the woman handed me a boarding card and off I went to catch my five-hour flight aboard SATA International.

I soon discovered all my seatmates (one taking a giant box of Timbits) were heading to the Azores for the summer to visit relatives. They were puzzled . . . why else would anyone visit a cluster of nine volcanic islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean? I was about to find out.

First, there are the cows. No wait, let’s leave the cows for now.

A Festival of Flavours

First, there is the annual international food festival called 10Fest, held at the well-appointed EFTH (School of Tourism and Hospitality Training) in Ponta Delgada’s modern cruise terminal. As the school’s 10th anniversary approached in 2012, director Filipe Rocha woke up one morning and wondered, “Why don’t we hold a 10-day food festival and invite top chefs from 10 countries to cook 10 fabulous dinners with local ingredients?”Which seemed like a crazy idea until the chefs all said they’d love to come, and locals and tourists snapped up tickets in five minutes.

Michelin-starred chef Fernando Agrasar from Galicia, Spain, opened the 2014 festival with a seven-course feast beginning with a delicate arrangement of marinated salmon, mini vegetables and fresh goat cheese on a ceramic plate created by a local potter. An army of students served a tiny golden square of unctuous sardine tart on a black plate, and steam rose when we lifted the lid of a miniature glass cocotte to savour a strip of silver-grey mackerel on a bed of pickled carrot and turnip.

As the evening light faded over the water outside the second-floor dining room, we enjoyed a rustic dish of abrotea fish with Iberian bacon on puréed green peas. At 11 p.m., a tiny perfect portion of beef tenderloin arrived, accompanied by a superb Portuguese red from a rare three-litre bottle called a jeroboam. 10Fest guests also sampled barman João Couto’s fabulous cocktails, infused with local spices, and wines from Pico island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (and the best spot for whale-watching), where weathered vines struggle between low walls of volcanic rock to produce golden Verdelho, buttery Terrantez and aromatic Arinto. 

Everyone was having such a good time I’m not even sure what time dessert appeared, a brilliant “cannelloni”wrap made of caramelized pineapple stuffed with rice pudding. As a finale, the entire force of students and chefs involved in the magical meal paraded up the stairs and between the long tables of guests, smiling and clapping. The next night they did it all again with a menu by Montréal’s Portuguese-born chef Helena Loureiro.

After the glamour of 10Fest, our lunch the following day at tiny, boisterous Tasca do ManéCigano was a shock, but equally delicious. Aluminum platters came piled with octopus salad, followed by deep-fried chunks of cinnamon-flecked Morcela black pudding, thin liver steaks and starchy slabs of grey boiled yams. We ate off plastic plates with plastic utensils and hoisted plastic cups of beer and red wine sangria. As for the rich desserts, our guide said Catholic nuns once used egg whites to starch their habits, and whisked the leftover yolks into flans, cakes and Portugal’s famous custard tarts.

Pastures and Forest-covered Peaks

Okay, now the cows. As we left the charming colonial capital to drive around the impossibly lush island, where blue and pink hydrangea grow wild, where every green-carpeted bump is an extinct volcano millions of years old, and where lakes carved into the landscape will take your breath away, a herd of cows appeared suddenly in the middle of the road. Since they obviously knew where they were going, I assumed we’d see a truck, a person or even a dog in front leading them. Nope. Apparently these contented Holstein Friesians wander freely from pasture to pasture, which take up much of the islands, without ever getting lost. At milking time, twice daily, their owners show up with a portable machine attached to their pick-up truck.

Much of this fabulously rich milk—30 million litres a year—is shipped to Portugal or made into butter and cheese. Taste wheels of world-famous cheese from São Jorge island at O Rei dos queisos (King of cheese) shop at the bustling market in Ponta Delgada.

Visitors heading home to Europe—Lisbon is a two-hour hop from São Miguel—can pick up a miniature pineapple in a box at the market, another Azores

specialty. Or taste them at one of several pineapple plantations to see for yourself the low whitewashed greenhouses where these sweet little fruits grow.

The power of volcanoes is evident all over the Azores. Hike around and even into the crater in the centre of Faial island, or be awed by the majestic curve of the Capelinhos volcano along the island’s west coast; an occasional bit of rooftop marks the destructive path of its last eruption in 1957. In the village of Furnas on São Miguel, chefs tap a live volcano’s heat to cook their famous cozido. They arrive at 5:30 a.m. to lower pots of prepared stew into the steaming holes, and return at 12:30 p.m. to retrieve lunch for their guests.

At the serene Terra Nostra Garden Hotel, we enjoyed tender chunks of beef, pork, chorizo sausage, chicken and sweet potato, basted in their natural juices and accompanied by soft, airy bolo levedo, which is similar to a slightly sweet English muffin. After lunch, stroll through the hotel’s botanical gardens or, donning your oldest bathing suit, take a dip in the iron-brown hot springs pool.

I left the Azores, relaxed and well fed, with white wine from Pico, artfully-wrapped cans of sustainably-caught tuna for gifts and plenty of photos of cows.

Travel Planner

SATA International (sata.pt) offers scheduled service from Toronto to the Azores. 10Fest 2015 will be held June 18 to 27. The EFTH’s Anfiteatro Restaurant is open to the public for lunch. For more information on the Azores and where to stay, log onto:

Azores Tourism: visitazores.com

Bensaude Hotels: bensaude.pt

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