Most of you have heard of Portugal, but how many of you know about a small island chain in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean called the Azores Islands? These alluring unique islands are unlike anywhere else in the world, and have a history, geography, ethnography and culture all their own. In this post, I’ll share with you everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the Azores Islands, including how to get there! But first, how do you properly pronounce Azores correctly? In Portuguese, it’s spelled Açores; the ç has a soft (sss) sound like a snake hissing, and the ending is a shh sound like you’re telling somebody to be quiet, so it sounds like Ahsooresh.
HOW DO YOU GET TO THE AZORES ISLANDS?
It’s actually surprisingly easy to get to the Azores Islands from the U.S. There are direct flights from Boston and New York, and it’s only a 4-hour flight from Boston to Ponta Delgada Airport on the main island of Sao Miguel, the largest island known as Ilha Grande. The flights are almost always overnight, leaving Boston at 9:00 PM and arriving on Sao Miguel at 6:00AM local time. The airline that flies from the U.S. to the Azores is called SATA Azores Airlines.
I love food, and I’m fascinated by cultures…which is probably pretty obvious from the name of my blog. But let me tell you one of the reasons I love food so much, especially when traveling; food not only brings people together to the table, which is where the most interesting conversations tend to occur; food is also the window to the culture and history of a place. The Azores Islands are a very special place indeed, and even though they are Portuguese Islands, their food differs from mainland Portugal and the locals truly feel a sense of their own unique identity. During our two weeks on Sao Miguel Island, we were able to meet some wonderful locals, try delicious traditional foods, and take a cultural foodie tour, which was one of the highlights of our visit. Read on to learn about some of the tastiest traditional foods and culture which has shaped and been shaped by the the Azores Islands.
I am excited to share with you all the fascinating knowledge we learned about the Azores Islands during our time here. But in order to understand the food, we must first understand the history, the ethnography, and the founding of these islands, in order to fully understand the culinary connections that are a result of such a unique place.
HISTORY OF THE AZORES
The Azores were founded in 1427; sailors passing through the Atlantic, would see huge clouds of ash, smoke and fire at night from their ships. They quickly realized that these were volcanic eruptions, which meant….eureka!…Land and potential resources! Fast forward to the 1600’s, Portugal was at war with many African countries, and during this time, they brought over prisoners of war to help construct the islands, which, as you can imagine, were quite rugged and difficult to develop upon first arrival. To this day, approximately 10% of the local population has African blood, which is why many locals have such beautiful dark skin.
We found it fascinating that during the Ice Age, much of Europe was destroyed, but the Azores remained unscathed because the ice never reached the islands, so they have maintained their prehistoric forests. We flew over many of these forests with Sasha’s VR drone, and they are unlike anything I’ve ever seen; the trees are packed dense, vibrant in color, and they look like broccoli from above!
The Azores are an autonomous region, both agriculturally and governmentally; they have their own President, who reports to the President of Portugal, but they can make their own decisions within the island chain. The locals on the islands speak their own version of Portuguese, which has a heavier accent than mainland Portugal.
TOURISM IN THE AZORES
The Azores has remained a relatively unknown part of the world until recently, when they started showing up on “the tourist radar”. While Europeans have been visiting the Azores on holidays for many years, it only started becoming more of a U.S. tourist destination around 2018. In fact, when we told our American friends where we were going to live abroad this time, 80% of them had never heard of this place. Though the Azores are known as “The Hawaii of the Atlantic“, it’s not exactly a warm tropical white sand turquoise beachy vibe with palm trees and coconuts. Here you’ll find black sand beaches, volcanic rocks, hot springs, waterfalls, and the most stunning lakes, which form in the calderas.
The Azores are for the adventurers; people who love adrenaline, hiking, surfing, whale watching, sailing, boating, and the great outdoors. It is absolutely a paradise, but it feels very different than the vibe of Hawaii, which has sadly become overrun by tourists, and has lost much of its authentic Aloha charm. The Azores still remain pristine and unbothered; untouched and not yet ruined by Instagrammers and busses of mass tourism. Though Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel Island is a port for large cruise ships, we were lucky to visit during a time when there were virtually zero tourists, so it was difficult to picture the island filled with photo-snapping fly-by-night travelers with stars in their eyes.
From both our experience as well as chatting with several locals we met, the local Azorean people seem to be not so fond of tourists (especially the older generation), and I can completely understand why. Because they are autonomous and their main industry is agriculture, they don’t rely on tourism as heavily as other destinations do. Can you imagine being 80 years old, having been born and raised on the island long before it became a tourism destination, and now going to your favorite restaurant where you know all the staff by name, only to find it filled with tourists with a queue out the door, and now you can’t even get in?
I do fear for the future of the Azores as a tourist destination, because it’s such a fragile place that must be preserved properly. They do not have the infrastructure to handle mass tourism, and I worry for the locals losing their sense of place. Being from Hawaii, I’ve seen first hand how locals have been pushed out of their own homes from rising prices; when all the homes have been turned into vacation rentals and locals are left with no place to rent or buy, this will become a problem. I also fear for the prices rising because of the demand from tourists; I believe that in places where tourism is over 80% of the industry, locals should have a different price than tourists, at least for the local attractions, hot springs, museums, etc. I would hate to see what has happened in Hawaii to happen to the Azores Islands. We feel very fortunate to have visited before this will become “the next Hawaii”. Mark my words; I do foresee tourism really picking up on the Azores, and I hope that the government is prepared to accept tourism sustainably and responsibly, whilst still maintaining a good and fair life for the local population.
ETHNOGRAPHY OF THE AZORES
The ethnic diversity of the people of the island dates long ago. During the 1600’s, then the 1800’s, then again during WWII, Jewish people migrated to the islands to escape the religious persecutions. In fact, there is even a synagogue in the middle of the city in Ponta Delgada! However, the building’s architecture matches the rest of the city so as to remain concealed for their safety. It has since been turned into a museum.
Another ethnic group of people who migrated to the Azores were the Flemish, who are known for their cheese making techniques. The Flemish settled the island of Sao George in the 1500’s, so it is believed that this is perhaps where the local Azorean people adopted the skills to become such master crafters of cheese, and why Sao George is now famous for it!
GEOGRAPHY OF THE AZORES
The Azores are a 9-island volcanic archipelago; the oldest island is Santa Maria, and the youngest island is Pico, which has the highest point on the island chain. Mount Pico stands at nearly 7,713′ elevation (2,570 meters), which is accessible via a four-mile hike rated difficult.
Each island (or ilha in Portuguese) has its own unique charm; Sao George is known for their cheese, Flores is known for their waterfalls, and Sao Miguel is known for their calderas filled with blue and green lakes.
Developed land is only 5%, and only 10% of the islands are above the water. Warm waters circulate in from Mexico (where we lived for the last three months), which makes this a subtropical, temperate climate. Temperatures don’t vary greatly as you would see in a climate zone such as a desert; the high and low temperatures only vary around 10 degrees, or 15 at the maximum. We were also surprised to find that though there are some mosquitoes here, they are quite shy and don’t bite much (what a welcome reprieve being from Hawaii!) It’s actually quite strange to me, to be hiking in a dense, humid jungly forest and not see any mosquitoes! What a dream!
Speaking of Hawaii (my home islands), there are lots of connections between the the Hawaiian Islands and the Azores, which are known as The Hawaii of The Atlantic. Portuguese immigration to Hawaii began in the 1870’s, primarily from the Azores and the island of Madeira (another Portuguese island) to work on the sugarcane fields (most notably the Big Island). A large percentage of the population in Hawaii today has Portuguese (or as local Hawaiians say it, Portagee) heritage.
The latitude of the Azores lies right around the same latitude as New York, so we were surprised to find that in the summer, it doesn’t get dark until 9:00 PM. The water in the Atlantic Ocean also isn’t as cold as we anticipated it would be. Sasha brought his 5 / 3 mm wetsuit and actually got hot in it whilst surfing!
AGRICULTURE OF THE AZORES
As I mentioned before, the Azores Islands are an autonomous region, meaning if they were to be cut off from food supply from ships, they would be able to sustain themselves, at least for some time. Their number one industry is agriculture and forestry; more specifically…dairy! In fact, there are more cows than people on most of the islands. Sao George is the island most well known for their cheese, which has an intense, earthy flavor unlike any cheese I’ve ever tasted in my life. In the Azores, cheese is only aged for a minimum of three months (required for safe consumption), so most of it is soft. However, there are some hard cheeses that are aged longer, but only up until 12 months.
You may also be surprised to hear that oranges used to be 95% of the income in the Azores during the 1800’s. Unfortunately they were wiped out by an insect plague that was brought from America (on behalf of my people, I am deeply sorry, Azores! 😭) After being wiped out of their main produce production, they began to grow pineapples. However, because the climate is not always ideal for growing pineapple (ananas in Portuguese), they are grown in greenhouses. You can tell an Azorean pineapple by the size of its crown, which is small and short.
Pineapples normally take around two years to grow, so in order to speed up the process, some brilliant farmer discovered a secret! They would line the greenhouse walkway with banana tree leaves and light them on fire. This created a smoke (no flame), and the pineapples, when under stress, would blossom and a small flower would produce! This method helps them grows faster and it kills the bacteria as well! This process is still used today, and has shortened the growth time from two years to 9 months. 🤯
Another food that we love, especially being from Hawaii, is ahi (tuna.) The tuna here is phenomenal, and we were delighted to learn that fishermen still primarily fish tuna the traditional way; by using a harpoon rather than a net, keeping it sustainable.
FOOD OF THE AZORES ISLANDS
I’ll be honest, when we first arrived to Sao Miguel Island, we were disappointed by the food scene, because, let’s be honest, there is no “food scene”. We’re on a remote island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The islands feel as though they are stuck in time – a time before the invention of reusable glasses, metal straws, specialty coffee, and chic hip cafes. When we checked Googlemaps for reviews on restaurants, there were only a handful that were rated above a 4.3. However, we quickly learned to not worry about checking reviews and instead just to go wherever the locals went. We then discovered the beauty of Azorean food and had wonderful culinary experiences through the rest of our stay. You just need to go in with the right set of expectations; the Azores are not a “foodie” destination, so don’t come here expecting fine dining, nice presentation, a mixture of ethnic cuisines, or specialty coffees. But what you can expect is real, honest, home made cooking with fresh ingredients grown and harvested locally, and people who are proud of where their food comes from and how it’s prepared. And that is a beautiful thing.
We actually found the food to be a bit on the salty side, especially the cod (Bacalhau in Portuguese). According to the Portuguese, there are 365 recipes for Bacalhau (one for each day of the year), so you will find this cooked in many different ways, but the most common is Bacalhau à Brás, or shreds of salted cod with potatoes. This is what I recommend ordering if it’s your first time trying Bacalhau because it’s not as overwhelmingly salty.
Azorean food does not contain many spices or heat; most of their flavoring is with simple salt, garlic and onion, similar to Mediterranean cuisine. If you’re like us and love spicy food (especially having just lived in Mexico for the last three months), simply ask for Piri Piri – this is their version of hot sauce. They may come out with Tabasco, but just ask for the local piri piri and they shall return with a deep red sauce that I would rate about a 2 out of 10 on the spicy scale (so not very spicy at all.)
A brilliant antidote to wash down the salty food is what the Azores are known for – Vino Verde (green wine). The first time we ordered vino verde, I’m not going to lie, I really thought we were going to get green wine. Sorry to disappoint you, but it’s not green, it’s white, sparkly and refreshingly light and delicious. It gets its name because of the green grapes used to make the wine.
Another regional dish is Morcela, a pineapple-infused blood sausage, black in color, and found in Cozido, the most emblematic dish on Sao Miguel Island. Furnas is a town filled with natural hot springs on the island of Sao Miguel, and this is where Cozido comes from. To make Cozido das Furnas, all the ingredients are placed in a giant pot (usually cabbage, carrots, onion, many different types of meats (on the bone), chorizo, blood sausage, potatoes, taro root and chard) and buried next to the soil next to the Furnas boilers and are left to cook for at least five hours. We were told by one of our local guides that you know it’s a good Cozido if it does not have the taste of sulfur.
Another tasty morsel is called Lapas, otherwise known as Limpet Clams in English…when life gives you lemons…squeeze it atop lapas!
CAN YOU DRINK THE TAP WATER IN THE AZORES?
Absolutely, yes! Not only is the tap water here safe for consumption straight out of the faucet, it’s some of the freshest water I’ve tasted in my life, and better than anything you could buy from a bottle. So please avoid purchasing single-use plastic bottled water, and bring your reusable bottles to fill up!
INTERNET SPEED IN THE AZORES
A huge factor that comes into play when Sasha and I decide where we will live and work remotely abroad, is the internet speed. We were delighted to learn that Sao Miguel Island has high speed fiber internet throughout the island, and it was indeed extremely fast.
CULTURAL FOOD TOURS
To really bring the island to life, we took a cultural foodie tour with a top-rated company called Hungry Whale Food Tours. This four-hour walking tour starts at the center of Ponta Delgada, the largest city in Sao Miguel Island, and goes through the town tasting and sampling 9 different regional and traditional foods of the islands. We learned more during our four-hour tour than we did during our entire two-week stay on the island! So, what can you expect from this enlightening cultural foodie tour? Besides learning about all of the fascinating history above, you will get to sample 9 different types of local, traditional foods and learn their connection to the islands. First, they start you off with Queijadas do Ponta Delgada (queijo means “cheese” in Portuguese, but there’s actually no cheese in this succulent pastry; it is so named because it has a cheesy texture, and it is only found here in the Azores.) It’s actually more like a custard.
Next you will try a sandwich made from Bolo Levedo (risen bread) with Sao George cheese and winter honey (which is lighter and not as sweet as summer honey) – the differentiation of these two distinct types of honey (winter and summer) are only found in New Zealand and the Azores. Bolo Levedo has a light, dense texture and a sweetness, almost like Hawaiian sweet bread if you’ve ever had the pleasure of trying it!
Your third tasting is from O Rei Dos Queijos (The King of Cheese), where you try a spoonful of omorro from the island of Faial. It’s very soft and has a texture like brie cheese.
The fourth stop is at Mercado da Graça (remember the ç is pronounced like an “s”), where you can sample local pineapple after learning about the interesting story that I explained above!
The fifth stop is at a restaurant called Vasco, formerly a jail for clergy, church members, or the inquisition. Here you will try octopus salad in olive oil.
The sixth stop is at a beautiful store called Comur, which is lined with walls and walls of what looks like chocolate (I got really excited), but they are in fact sardines! You won’t sample anything here, but it’s an interesting and photogenic shop (a former textile factory), and a great place to purchase gifts to take home to friends and family.
The seventh stop is at a restaurant called Adega Mestre Andre where you’ll try two dishes; the local chorico (chorizo) and fried mackerel with taro root. Because the fish are so small, the locals eat the entire thing – head, tail, bones and all!
Your final stop is at Talisma Hotel, where you’ll finish a great tour with a sweet ending of a lava cake made with cookie sides, caramel and pineapple ice cream topped with merengue (not a traditional Azorean food but delicious nonetheless!) After our tour we grabbed an espresso at a cute coffee shop called Dondue (which is Azorean slang for “where is it?”) (Doesn’t my husband look so European?) 😉
Taking this food tour was definitely the cultural highlight of our trip on Sao Miguel Island, and I highly recommend it if you’ll be visiting Ponta Delgada! You can see which tours they have available and book your tour here.
Perhaps now you will be inspired to visit the Azores Islands, or at the very least, know where they’re located and a bit more about the culture and history! We are excited to return to explore some of the other islands in the Azores.
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