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Azores - Eating and sleeping
Eating out in the Azores is a very variable experience and is often surprising. 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; you will soon conclude it is rather a lottery. In the medium-priced restaurants there can again be surprises. Some islands are definitely better than others for eateries, and often a single establishment can shine like a beacon.
Sadly it cannot be claimed that the islands are a gastronomic delight, but this is changing. The lower and mid-priced restaurants all seem to share the same menu so that after a week you are beginning to look for novelties. To do so, instead of simply looking down one menu, menus of all the restaurants have to be examined – at least in Angra, Ponta Delgada and Horta where there are many 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. Hopefully the new catering school by the cruise terminal in Ponta Delgada will bring change.
Portions are generally huge, sometimes overpoweringly so, especially meat. Fish including seafood is usually excellent, but there is a danger of fish being smothered in sauces or garlic so killing natural flavours. If you cannot find it plain grilled, often the most reliable ploy is to find it done as a local version of bouillabaisse; the alcatra on Terceira is an excellent example, and they make it with meat as well. 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 excellent 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.
Whenever I am able I tend to seek the least pretentious, smallest, tucked-away place I can find and there often discover superb Azorean fish cooked faultlessly to reveal the flavours only really fresh fish can give. Often, too, such places give amazingly good value for money although, like the fish, they are disappearing.
Restaurants are often tucked away down narrow alleyways and labelling them on maps is liable to confuse, rather than aid, a hungry traveller, but locals are friendly – don’t hesitate to ask for directions.
For information on tipping etiquette, see Tips on Tipping.
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 standard comfort in conventional hotels, apartment hotels, resort hotels and interesting hotels, to the simple family hotel, and finally delightful old manor houses with character. There is a five star hotel on Terceira, plus one São Miguel, where there is another due to open in late 2016. In addition to hotels, there are also self-catering apartments and cottages, small guesthouses and bed-and-breakfast establishments.
Accommodation has hugely improved and expanded over the past few years and will likely continue 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. Many hotels now have suites, with quite a number offering special rates for children, or for an extra bed in a room. 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!
Finally, a pensão or residencial can be a relatively old and small town hotel, and furnishings may be a little spartan and gloomy. However, in the last few years many have been refurbished to a high standard and offer good value for money.
All islands have official campsites, most with amenities and nominal charges, and some are very attractive. 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.
Five islands (São Miguel, Santa Maria, Terceira, Pico and São Jorge) have youth hostels; see the website www.pousadasjuvacores.com.