In the Azores, You Can Cook Your Dinner Inside a Volcano
Preparing cozido das Furnas, an iconic dish of this Portuguese archipelago — where the regional cuisine is deeply connected to the geological activity beneath the surface.
I stood back from the steaming, manhole-sized crater and watched my lunch being lowered into the ground. Next to me stood Valter Vieira, the chef at Terra Nostra Garden Hotel in Furnas. Earlier that morning, we had gathered the makings of his specialty dish: cozido das Furnas, a version of the ubiquitous Iberian meat-and-vegetable stew that’s native to the vibrant, volcanic archipelago of the Azores, 1,000 miles off the coast of Portugal. He had led me down the main street of Furnas, his hometown — stopping at the greengrocer for potatoes, carrots, collard greens, cabbage, and the famous Azorean taro, and the butcher shop, where he had a jocular chat with the owner as an assistant loaded our basket with pig ears, chicken thighs, brisket, bacon, blood sausage, and chouriço.
Now, all of those ingredients were in a stock pot, and that stock pot was in a volcano. We were at a public park near Furnas Lake filled with identical fumaroles for cozido-cooking, each with a little sign indicating which local family owned it. The park attendants in charge of our pot were doing what they had done ten times that day already, covering it with six feet of warm dirt. My lunch would stay sealed within the 200°F chamber for six hours.
Furnas is a town of 1,500 on São Miguel, the largest island in the Azores. It’s also in the mouth of an active volcano. Actually, this whole Atlantic archipelago is alive with volcanic activity — the nine islands erupted out of the sea a few hundred thousand years ago, and they’ve continued to erupt ever since, most notably in 1957, when Capelinhos, a volcano on the island of Faial, spat and churned for months on end and made refugees of 1,500 islanders. Turns out, not all volcanoes are pointy; here, they often look more like wide valleys or rolling hills. Portuguese settlers arrived in the previously uninhabited islands in the 15th century; they were caught off guard when, in 1630, the seemingly quiet area around Furnas experienced its first documented eruption.
When you live in a caldera, you have to learn to respect its power — but also to harness it. Furnas is known as the Azores’ premier spa town, drawing visitors with its life-giving, mineral-rich, geothermally heated waters. Terra Nostra is perhaps the most iconic hot spring hotel in the area, an Art Deco complex set in the midst of a sprawling botanic garden. Many of the town’s hot springs, called caldeiras, are far too hot for bathing, but ideal for cooking. Some of the hottest pools, located in the town center, are still open to the public for making coffee and tea, or for boiling eggs, sausages, and corn.
The most intriguing regional dish, though, requires some digging. Not that cozido is difficult to find; everyone in town knows how to make it. But here, in a community so attuned to and reliant on the volcanic heat and shifting earth, it’s prepared in a way that’s not seen anywhere else in Portugal. Rather than simmering on a stove, ingredients cook slowly in a geothermal chamber, luxuriating in their own juices. Families guard their cozido holes carefully, passing them down through the generations.
Though it shares the humble lineage of any other boiled dinner, in Furnas, preparing cozido can be elevated to a fine art. Six hours in a volcano can do wonders for even the most basic ingredients; the sulfurous heat lends a satisfying funk, and the meat falls off the bone. Back at Terra Nostra, the tuxedoed maître d’ saw me to my white-clothed table and poured me a glass of flinty white wine from the Azorean island of Pico, 180 miles west of us. (Another benefit of living with the volcano is a mineral-rich terroir.) A waiter brought out the fruits of my labor. He arranged the contents of the pot on a gleaming platter, each sausage and leaf of cabbage in place, and presented a Japanese kettle containing the precious cooking liquid, which he proceeded to pour over the platter, sending up a cloud of steam.
Furnas Trip Planner
Delta recently started up seasonal nonstop flights from New York to Ponta Delgada, the regional capital, and Azores Airlines offers direct service from Boston, Providence, and Oakland year-round.
Local tour operator Azores Getaways can organize a cozido das Furnas cooking lesson and a variety of other excursions. Stay at Terra Nostra Garden Hotel, where the restaurant serves the finished dish daily at lunch and dinner.