Eating out in the Azores can be a very variable experience. The true positive is the quality of the meat and the fish, which is first-class. Usually, these dishes are simply prepared, and a rich accompanying sauce would be a rare find. Sometimes you can strike it lucky in the more expensive eateries and be given a sophisticated and well-presented dish, depending on who is cooking that night. Many Azoreans admit that there is often a focus on quantity rather than sophistication and you will surely never be underfed here. Most islands have one or two stand-out restaurants (though not really ‘top-end’ by European or North American standards), raising the level or doing something a bit inventive or different. Azoreans have fairly conservative tastes, which results in the appearance of boiled potatoes or chips with many meals. Often, meals will be served with potatoes and rice, plus a huge basket of bread to accompany it: for many, far too much carbohydrate. Vegetarians will have to look hard for variety, though Ponta Delgada has one excellent meat-free restaurant and more and more restaurants and larger hotels usually have some vegetarian options, too. One peculiarity is that many of the places calling themselves ‘snack-bars’ are in fact almost indistinguishable from many middle-of-the-road restaurants.
Sadly it cannot truthfully be claimed that the islands are a gastronomic delight, but this is changing, albeit slowly. The lower- and mid-priced restaurants often seem to share the same menu so that after a week you are hunting for novelties. To find these is easier in Angra, Ponta Delgada and Horta, where there are more restaurants to choose from. With such a good growing climate there should be a wonderful range of vegetables on offer but it seems most townspeople prefer simply to buy from the supermarket rather than grow much for themselves, and the supermarkets are not very adventurous. This is then reflected in the restaurants, which is no excuse, however, for serving rice and chips in combination, together with tinned diced mixed vegetables. Salads are mostly lettuce, some tomato, sliced onion, maybe grated carrot and if you are lucky, some cucumber, rarely all together; dressing is usually left to you, from a bottle of olive oil and vinegar. Hotels often offer more variety, and can be very good, but even the best can include some of the routine ingredients cooked unimaginatively.
Portions are generally huge, sometimes overpoweringly so, especially meat. Fish, including seafood, is usually excellent, best eaten plain grilled or else as a local version of bouillabaisse; the alcatra on Terceira is an excellent example, though often this is made with meat instead. Bacalhau (dried cod), the traditional village dishes and Azorean sausages can be very good indeed, as can the spicy chouriço (smoked sausage) and the black blood sausage, morcelas, with pineapple, but not too often in the same week!
Mercifully, Azorean cheeses are good and quality mainland Portuguese wines have been unsung for far too long, leaving the diner feeling very content with the world. Some chocolate desserts can be gorgeous.
The settlers in the Azores had their priorities well ordered because wine has been produced since the very early days. On Pico grape varieties brought by the first settlers from mainland Portugal failed to acclimatise. The Verdelho grape was imported around 1500, possibly from Sicily, or maybe from Madeira, or perhaps by a Jesuit from Italy.
Vines were first planted on a large scale in the 16th century by the Catholic orders of Franciscans and Carmelites and by Jesuits in the following century. On Pico the vines were brought to Silveira, but here the surrounding land was too good for grapes and needed for essential foods such as wheat. Instead they went to the geologically youngest area of the island where the ground was very poor and stony, around the west coast.
It is so heavily lava-strewn that it was only with great labour and difficulty sufficient stones were cleared, using them to make what became the characteristic walls, or currais, of small enclosures that provide such wonderful shelter from salty winds and at the same time extra heat. Surplus stone was neatly stacked into rectangular piles called richeiros.
This was done mainly along the western edge of the island and now, almost half a millennium later, it is a protected zone because of its history. Other interesting features of this extraordinary memorial to the energy and persistence of the islanders include the decansadouros, the resting places for those carrying full baskets of grapes; made of stone, they are in two levels, one for those carrying on their heads and those carrying baskets on their shoulders. At the height of production some 30,000 barrels or 15 million litres were produced annually.
Among the countries it was exported to were Britain and famously to the Russian tsars, apparently by a German trading family. Quite what this wine was is not known as there were very few written records kept about how it was produced. However, Edward Boid, visiting in 1832, wrote that the merchants in Horta took the Pico wine and mixed it with wine from São Jorge and added brandy.
It was then heated to between 110˚F and 130˚F for four to six months, during which time any evaporation from the casks was topped up with more wine and brandy. It seems that different blends were produced for different markets.
Because of the rocky terrain, transport of the barrels was difficult, and to get them onto the waiting ships, wooden boards were laid over rocks that had previously been cut and roughly levelled. You might see old stone slipways or rola-pipas used to get the barrels into the sea, where they were then towed out to the waiting ship. The best Pico wine was said to be ‘so good it should be drunk in the middle of a prayer’.
When disease struck in the mid 1800s the first vines were replaced with the hardy Isabella grape whose strong aroma gave rise to the vinho de cheiro – fragrant wine. This is widely made throughout the islands for village consumption, and many a walker has staggered onward under the influence of spontaneous hospitality.
Twenty years or so ago small-scale experiments were conducted with new continental varieties, and some old stone enclosures replaced by long, straight rows supported by wires that always looked impressively immaculate in their level fields of cinders. However, it is the traditional method with its long history that is the remarkable showpiece and has most recently been rejuvenated in a number of ways, firstly by recognising various areas of vine growing and production – the Zonas Vitivinícolas – and secondly by the establishment of a Regional Commission based in Madalena to guarantee quality and production methods, and certification.
Named quality wines produced in a demarcated area are designated VLQPRD (vinhos licorosos de qualidade produzidos em região determinada), which covers vinhos licorosos or fortified sweetened wines recommended as an aperitivo, and includes the white table wine Pedras Brancas from Graciosa, now happily much reduced in price from a few years ago. The VLQPRD include the Brum wine from Biscoitos on Terceira and Pico’s Lajido.
This varies hugely, from the comfort of large conventional hotels and apartment hotels, to simple family hotels, smart guesthouses/B&Bs, delightful old manor houses with character, converted forts, youth hostels and camping. There is a five star hotel on Terceira, plus a handful on São Miguel. Some of the larger hotels were built several decades ago and need refreshing, but increased visitor numbers have brought welcome investment, especially on São Miguel. In addition to serviced accommodation, there are also self-catering apartments and cottages to rent. Apart from the self-catering options, breakfast is usually included in the price quoted.
Accommodation has hugely improved and expanded over the past few years and is continuing to do so. São Miguel has seen the biggest increase in new hotels, mostly around Ponta Delgada. Angra on Terceira and Horta on Faial have also seen a substantial increase in the number of new places to stay.
There is also new accommodation on all the other islands. All this building has greatly eased the acute shortage of beds in the peak season, but of course it creates a surplus in the winter months – another reason to come off -season, when deals can be done! One word of caution: the Azorean weather means constant painting and maintenance for accommodation owners, and sometimes they will close suddenly in winter when the weather allows for a bit of decoration: booking in advance will ensure you get a bed.
Hotels are graded according to the price of a double or twin room in high season. Low-season rates can fall by up to 50%. The highest season is generally July and August, but prices in May/June/September will be somewhat higher than in midwinter. Single-room rates are generally only a little below the double-room rate. Many hotels offer special deals; check their websites for the latest offers. For off-season visitors, note that some establishments may close for some or all of the winter.
For self-caterering, check the website www.casasacorianas.com, which lists dozens of quality-checked rural houses rentable usually by the week or longer, though sometimes by the night. The site has photographs and details of all the houses, many with online reservation available.
All islands have official campsites, most with very basic amenities and nominal charges, and some are very attractive, though sometimes lacking in shade or shelter. Details are given under the respective islands. The sites are very popular with the local people – it’s just nice to get away from home for a couple of days or so, read a book, go fishing, find a good restaurant or eat outside at the barbecues provided. They are also very popular with teenagers in the school holidays, but don’t expect on-site restaurants, waterslides or kids’ clubs!
For youth hostels, which can currently be found on São Miguel, Santa Maria, Terceira, Pico and São Jorge, see the website pousadasjuvacores.com, which includes an online booking facility. You don’t have to be a youth or a member, and most have a limited number of private rooms as well as dormitory accommodation. The latter costs less than €20 per night.