Cheese, Wine, and Geothermal Cooking in the Azores
Hedges of hydrangeas crested above the road like suspended waves as we drove through one flowering barrel after another. Catarina Maia, of tour operator Azores Getaways, deftly handled curve after curve behind the wheel. Near the top of the Água de Pau Massif, a volcano rising more than 3,000 feet above the Atlantic, we stopped the car at a crater lake called Lagoa do Fogo. The water gleamed like polished turquoise in the sunlight. A low-slung rainbow stretched across the water, as if announcing itself as viable bridge to the other side.
It doesn’t take long to be captivated by the unrelenting abundance of the Azores. In this archipelago of nine islands 850 miles west of Portugal, surreal storybook visuals and fantastical experiences abound. The temptation is to run around trying to take in as much as you can. But overlooking that crater, where eruptions had, over the course of millennia, given way to enduring serenity, I remembered something I had heard at dinner the previous evening. Go slow here.
I had arrived in Ponta Delgada, the regional capital, the day before. The city is the cultural and economic center of São Miguel, the largest island in the Azores. (Nearly half of the 246,000 residents of the Azores live on São Miguel; the smallest island, Corvo, has a population of less than 500.) I met Maia and company founder Luis Nunes for dinner at Louvre Michaelense, a restaurant with the look of an old-fashioned apothecary and a menu promising updated takes on classic Azorean dishes made with local ingredients.
It was clear that our meal would be a long one. First, a medium-rare mackerel fillet came plated over a sunburst of molho de vilão, a sweet and spicy sauce made from pimenta de terra, the Azores’ hot pepper. Braised octopus sat on top of grits, red with wine, all of it studded with tridents of sea fennel. Broccoli was dressed with a cloud of Azorean yogurt. Seeds from pomegranates grown nearby bejeweled carpaccio-grade slivers of cauliflower. A server set another table next to ours to accommodate the procession of dishes he continued to ferry from the kitchen. I was gently told to expand my understanding of the concept of time.
“Go slow,” Nunes told me. “The Azorean way is that you take forever.”
It was with eternity in mind that I headed out, the next day, to Furnas, a town in the center of the island that sits in an ancient volcanic crater. I had an appointment to meet Paula Aguiar, one of the most important culinary ambassadors of the Azores. Aguiar, who has a Ph.D. in environmental sciences and an MBA in resource management, is the founder of Azores Essentials, a shop inside a former bathhouse where she showcases traditional, small-batch Azorean foods: multicolored olives brined in seawater from Terceira, seaweed patties from the islands of Faial and Flores.
Aguiar has also sourced multiflora honey from the tiny island of Corvo; tea from São Miguel, home to Europe’s only plantations; DOC wines from Pico; handmade sausages from Santa Maria; and garlic, a source of great regional pride, from Graciosa. She told me the arabica coffee from São Jorge was one of her most rewarding finds. It arrived in the shop after a three-year negotiation with the grower, Manuel Nunes, that had nothing to do with money and everything to do with whether he felt she could be trusted with his beloved beans.
It’s not just their natural offerings that give this group of islands, 908 square miles of sea and land combined, its oversize emotional pull. Azorean people are exuberant about their home in a way that’s palpable. “You can really feel people’s attachment to the place,” Aguiar told me. “Historically, resources were limited, and traveling between the islands was complicated. Survival would really depend on your own land.”
This land has been coveted ever since its discovery by the Portuguese in the 15th century, when the then-uninhabited archipelago became an important way station between Europe and the Americas. Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus stopped here. Flemish settlements emerged. Britain, Spain, and Portugal all fought for possession. The Portuguese brought enslaved Africans to Brazil through these ports. The Azores are still part of Portugal, but, since 1976, they’ve functioned as an autonomous region with their own government. Aguiar told me: “The link between history and the present, and making those connections, is the backbone of my work.”
I was still buzzing from the spectrum-stretching luminosity of the drive into Furnas — rainbows, purple-blue hydrangeas, lemon-yellow lilies with electric-pink tongues — when Aguiar and I arrived at Queijaria Furnense, a cheese-making facility led by 21-year-old Paula Rego. “There are more cows in the Azores than people,” she told me. Paddle in hand, hairnet secured, Rego stirred a milky mixture in a stainless-steel vat, making figure eights with the focus of an athlete.
Rego had already received the day’s shipment of 400 gallons of milk from her family’s farm up the road, where her 22-year-old brother, Paul, manages a herd of 180 Holsteins and Jerseys. Rego and her team make about 500 wheels of cheese every day — from amanteigado, which literally means “buttery soft,” to harder, aromatic varieties like alho, flavored with garlic, and orejaos, made with oregano. (Rego told me the herbs and alliums were traditionally added for their antibacterial properties.)
Aguiar explained the significance of Queijaria Furnense’s operation. “The primary economic driver in the Azores is dairy,” she told me. “It is coveted. The cows graze on pastures enhanced by the volcanic soil all year, and their milk has more omega-3s because of it.” But annual export quotas mean Azorean producers are only allowed to send a fixed amount of milk to mainland Portugal and the European Union. Working around these limitations, she explained, “the new generation has started making even more premium cheese, ice cream, and chocolate.”
The Azores are one of the few places, remote or otherwise, whose collective pride in traditional foods far outweighs any tendency on the part of young chefs and producers to take things in a more contemporary direction. Aguiar expressed pride that Azorean foodways are evolving at an unforced but economically beneficial pace. Meanwhile, Rego’s mother, Lucia, put together a selection of the family’s cheeses for us to try. “How much is too much?” she asked. “I never know.”
While other regions of Portugal have their own versions of cozido, a meat-and-vegetable stew, the Furnas Valley is unique for its subterranean cooking technique. After leaving Queijaria Furnense, we drove away from town, zooming past passion-fruit vines, to the Lagoa das Furnas. Adjacent to this crater lake sits a network of steaming, bubbling caldeiras, or hot springs, and piles of dirt that look like massive anthills. Our lunch had been cooking in a metal bucket several feet beneath one of these mounds for the past six hours, at around 200 degrees Fahrenheit, and it was now ready to be exhumed.
We ate our plated cozido das Furnas at a nearby restaurant called Caldeiras & Vulcões. It’s simply a dish where more is more. There’s cabbage and kale, chorizo and blood sausage, chicken breasts and pork butt, bacon and beef, carrot and taro. Each bite — a forkful of silky pig’s ear with malty sweet potato, say — revealed new flavors, textures, and levels of satisfaction. While plenty of dishes can be described as “earthy,” this one has the distinction of actually tasting of earth.
That minerality is created by the iron-rich waters and vapors of the caldeiras, and is a hallmark of Furnas’s geothermal cuisine. As we ate, Aguiar explained that restaurants lease these underground cooking plots from the Azorean government for five euros a month and transport cauldrons of cozido back and forth throughout the day. This commercial practice began in the 1970s, but locals have been cooking the dish, and using the earth like a Crock-Pot, for centuries. “It made sense,” Aguiar said, “to stick a pot of food in the warm ground in the morning, before heading into the fields for work, and to come back to a finished meal around lunch.”
Post-cozido, we walked around the center of Furnas and inspected another complex of boiling caldeiras. (Elsewhere in town there are hot springs of lesser temperatures offering curative dips, some made into private spas, others into public baths.) Aguiar introduced the gurgling, hissing, vapor-breathing pits one by one. There was the Caldeira da Asmodeu, dedicated to the purification of carnal sins. “It’s the only one that burned me,” she joked. There’s the Caldeira de Pêro Botelho, which her grandmother informed her was the entrance to hell. Aguiar and other Furnas residents take advantage of the temperature and the pH level in the Caldeira do Esguicho to boil corn, eggs, and taro root.
“This is where your water tasting begins,” Aguiar said as we arrived at a spigot drilled into the rock. At public taps around Furnas, we sampled waters of different temperature, minerality, acidity, sweetness, sourness, and bubbliness, appreciating with wonder that a substance so elemental could be so boundlessly diverse. She dipped her hand into a shallow, tepid pool to retrieve a piece of what she called “black filament.” Into my palm she placed a warm, worm-size, wiggly object made up of a type of bacteria that lives by the millions in these waters. Aguiar informed me, with solemn conviction, that I was holding one of the first life-forms to appear on earth.
Being on Terceira also felt like stepping back in time, though my guide there, Marina Nuñes, told me this island of 56,000 was relatively young as landmasses go; it was formed a mere 3.5 million years ago by three or four significant volcanic eruptions, and in 1980, it was completely leveled by a 7.2-magnitude earthquake. Three years later, its largest city, Angra do Heroísmo, or the Bay of Heroes — once the religious and cultural seat of the Azores — was rebuilt to its former splendor. In 1983, the city became one of Portugal’s first UNESCO World Heritage sites. Nuñes, who has a flair for superlatives, said that despite her home’s tumultuous creation and re-creation stories, the island has the reputation of being, in her words, “the amusement park of the Azores.”
As we hairpinned along cliffsides, zigzagged among cattle, and shot up, down, and over mountains in her van, Nuñes rattled off the year’s celebratory engagements, from King’s Day to Carnival to six months’ worth of running with the bulls — races that sometimes occur more than once a day. There is, Nuñes said, a holiday celebrating friendships between women and, also, one celebrating friendships between men; there’s even a duo of festivities honoring mothers-in-law and fathers-in-law. Most compelling to me, however, are the eight Sundays after Easter, when the people of Terceira gather in the 73 candy-colored chapels across the island that are dedicated solely to the worship of the Holy Ghost.
Many of these structures, called impérios, have just a couple of pews and a small pulpit (they’re usually adjacent to a larger church). Their ornate façades, brightly colored paint, and intricate woodwork give each one the air of a miniature fun house. Nuñes, however, said the chapels are solemn places of worship, part of a tradition of searching for extra-powerful prayers. “When people landed here, in the middle of nowhere,” she told me, “they needed spirituality of the highest order. They needed a relationship with the ultra-divine, to know a miracle could arrive if they ever needed one.”
The food I had on Terceira felt like a miracle in its own right. My first meal was at Ti Choa, in the small village of Serreta, where the império boasts a mint-green, arched entranceway and geometric reliefs in primary colors ascending the exterior walls. Ti Choa, formerly a farmhouse, is less elaborate than the chapel, built from humble stone with exposed supporting beams on the inside.
Sisters Delisa and Lisandra Cardoso, 39 and 31, respectively, run the 13-year-old restaurant, having taken over from their parents a few years ago. They think of Ti Choa as a place to showcase their grandmother’s recipes: the beans she’d stew with bacon and cinnamon, or her alcatra, a stew of pork ribs, black pudding, brisket, cow liver, and white wine made from Verdelho grapes. Delisa, who oversees the dining room, described Lisandra’s cooking in terms both supernatural and familial. “My sister has angel hands, like my grandmother.”
All day, Nuñes had been stopping the van at vista after vista, each one more incredible than the last: waves crashing 30 or 40 feet up the faces of jagged cliffs; a vast, intricate patchwork of farmland seen from high above, shades of green upon green. On our way to the lodge where I would be staying that night, Nuñes took me to the local swimming hole, a series of tidal pools eroded from black volcanic rock. The water thrashed toward the shore in wild, explosive whitecaps; there were no swimmers in sight. Nuñes said she’d never seen the waves that big.
I could still hear them rolling in the distance from the balcony of my Modernist tree house at the Caparica Azores Ecolodge, in Biscoitos, on Terceira’s northern shore. If my lunch at Ti Choa had been cooked by an angel, I took my dinner from on high. On my balcony, which overlooked the Atlantic, I sliced one fresh bolo lêvedo, a sweeter, denser cousin of the English muffin, and pulled back the metal tab on a tin of Azorean tuna, elegantly packed in olive oil on the island of São Jorge.
At every place we stopped that day, Nuñes would repeat, “It will get even better!” and I’d repeat, “How?” Up in my tree, at day’s end, a simple feast laid on the table, the sky blushing, the ocean humming, Nuñes’s refrain echoed in my head.
My guide on the island of Pico, Raisa de Oliveira, implored me to understand the place in terms of its energy. A Brazilian-born alpinist, yoga instructor, and scuba diver, de Oliveira explained that what Pico, population 16,000, lacks in people, it makes up for in the vibrations it pumps into the universe. Its dominant feature is Mount Pico, the tallest volcano in Portugal and a reminder to all that larger forces are always at play.
The volcanic earth factors heavily into Pico’s terroir — and the way its wineries are built. Shortly after the 35-minute flight to the island, I became the guest of Marco Faria, 43, a third-generation winemaker, close friend of Paula Aguiar, and one of the most generous hosts I’ve ever met. Faria’s winery is called Curral Atlantis; curral, he explained, is the name for the walled-in plot of land on which local vines grow.
According to Faria, Pico is one of the hardest places in the world to make wine; the lithic ground must often be supplemented by soil from neighboring islands. And because of the fierce winds, vines have been grown low to the ground since the 15th century and surrounded by protective stone walls. To make a curral, the rocks are smashed, shaped, and stacked by hand. Just prior to my visit, Hurricane Lorenzo, the strongest storm to hit in 20 years, damaged currais all over the island. Broken stones were everywhere.
The currais absorb sunlight during the day, then radiate heat and energy to the grapes within their borders during the island’s cool nights. When viewed collectively, Pico’s currais look like a medieval labyrinth in the shadows of the volcano.
I sat with Faria at seafood restaurant Ancoradouro, in Madalena, a tiny town of bleached-white buildings with red clay roofs between the sea and the mountain. A couple of times a year, Faria and his collaborator, enologist Paulo Laureano — who has a handful of vineyards across Portugal — host dinner events to showcase favorite vintages, flying a chef from the mainland to cook.
This time, it was Miguel Gameiro, from Lisbon, who has achieved some culinary fame in Portugal but is far better known as the lead singer of the 90s pop quintet Pólo Norte. In the airy seaside dining room, we ate ceviche made with irio, a local jackfish reminiscent of fatty tuna, and ravioli made green with algae and stuffed with three fishes (irio, rockfish, and boca negra). We drank blends of Verdelho and Arinto that tasted of stone and sea. Before the first course even ended, Faria had asked me to join his family for lunch the next day.
Around midnight, the chef behind this Azorean feast emerged from the kitchen. Gameiro was suitably goateed and swaggering, with acoustic guitar in hand. Not long after he started strumming, he instructed his audience to hug their neighbors, and they obliged. He sang songs of love, longing, and self-reflection. The crowd sang with him full-heartedly and remained in one another’s embrace, only breaking their grip to drink more wine. Faria smiled and kissed his wife.
“This is paradise,” Faria said, as Gameiro sang on, the chorus around them continuing to rise. “We can produce unique things in the Azores,” he told me. “We can do what nobody else can do.”
Island-Hopping in the Atlantic
I stayed at Sul Villas & Spa, a sleek new cliff-top resort. Nearby Ponta Delgada has quirky galleries, wine bars, and restaurants like Louvre Michaelense. In the hot-springs town of Furnas, I learned about Azorean foods at Queijaria Furnense and Paula Aguiar’s specialty-foods shop, Azores Essentials. A highlight was my lunch of cozido das Furnas at Caldeiras & Vulcões.
Tour vineyards like Curral Atlantis, at the foot of Mount Pico, and stop at tasting rooms like Cella Bar, which was given a 2016 Building of the Year award by ArchDaily. There’s even a wine museum: Museu do Vinho. Try the fish stew at Ancoradouro, and season it with red wine. I stayed in a minimalist wooden villa at family-owned nature resort Alma do Pico.
How to Book
This trip was planned by Azores Getaways, founded by São Miguel native Luis Nunes. They have contacts on all nine islands and can plan excursions like a cozido cooking class or a day cruise to spot migrating sperm whales.
A version of this story first appeared in the August 2020 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "Elemental Azores." Azores Getaways provided support for the reporting of this story.