This guide is broken into four chapters, outlining the best of our 9-day trip to São Miguel, the Azores, during mid-October 2016:
Part 3: What to Eat in the Azores
These coffee cups on our flight say it all. There are infinite adventures in the Azores, and that includes the local food scene on Sao Miguel. I always think the best way to learn about a culture is through the local food. Recipes – techniques and flavors – are one of those traditions that is passed down through generations and tend to be an honest reflection of any culture. Values, hardships, economics, politics, environment – are all reflected in the local cuisine.
Here is a brief guide to what to eat in the Azores, restaurant recommendations and a little ebit about what to expect in the way of Azorean cuisine.
Azorean Snack Bars
SNACK BARS are pretty much the best thing ever. They are all over – at the beaches they exist in ice-cream-truck form, at attractions they are in tent-form, and in the towns they are sprinkled around the street corners – some of these also have kitchens and serve food. You can usually tell the snack bars by the small crow of locals hanging out near the door. The food is generally pretty good, and local. They serve beer, coffee, cocktails, ice cream and food (usually) ranging from basic pastries to full meals.
One of our favorite snack bar is TuKa TuLa in Ribiera Grande. The food is excellent – not to mention it’s a top-notch surf spot with live music and is literally on the beach (with a wind shield). We ordered an awesome squid ink pasta dish to split, and pineapple with blood sausage – a staple on the island.
TRAVELER’S TIP: This was a recommendation from our AirBnB host. I highly suggest asking locals for their recommendations if you find yourself hungry in a new place!
Imbibing on the Azores
The BEER SCENE is pretty dismal compared to the craft scene in Boston, but the price is right. Especial was our favorite by a slim margin. Super Bock and Sagres are your other two choices on the island – all local Azorean brews. The best move is to get whatever is on draft -it tends to taste better out of a glass. You just order “a beer” – It’s like America’s beer scene in the ’70s.
You might hear rumblings of the fabled Santo Graal beer bar, but it recently closed permanently, and we weren’t able to find another place offering a decently selection of craft beers, despite our efforts.
There is also a local liquor producer in Ribeira Grande – they give free samples and have some pretty tasty fruit liquors – I’d recommend the passion fruit brandy, made with local passion fruit.
If WINE is your thing, there is plenty of it in the Azores!
The Azorean wine producers are primarily on Pico Island – a small island far from Sao Miguel, known for its conical volcano. The wine from Pico are excellent. I’m not a wine connoisseur, but they produce an array of wallet-friendly tasty reds (1-2 euro per glass!), which we tried at multiple restaurants. They also make a light, young, sparkling white wine that is refreshing and fantastic. It was available on draft (from a tap!) at A Tasca. My kind of wine.
The Azorean Diet
You might think the AZOREAN DIET is full of fresh fruits and veggies- the island is lush and green and the community is largely agricultural. But that is not the case. Expect meat, fish, bread, cheese, and more meat. Maybe a potato. The fish is fresh as can be, and is served grilled and whole with lots of bones – be prepared to get a hands-on marine anatomy lesson with every meal.
One night, we bought fish at the market to cook in our Air BnB kitchen. It was a large Mackerel for 4 euro – the fishmonger gutted it on the spot and wrapped it up for us. There was an incredible selection of fish – many I’d never heard of. We baked the big mackerel whole on super high heat, and wow is was great. We also bought lettuce and had a salad, and made mashed cauliflower, potatoes and leeks, which I was craving badly after days without my usual veggie-heavy diet.
The BEEF is also extremely fresh – it’s one of the islands main agricultural products, along with pineapples, butter, cheese, and milk. All excellent. (Seriously, I stuffed my suitcase full of mini-butter packs, and I am not a butter-person). The eggs were also impressive – with deep orange colored yolks. How can we get eggs like this in America?!
It’s abundantly clear once you arrive in the Azores, that agriculture, and fishing are the two mainstays of this island chain. You can get up-close to the dairy scene with this farm excursion, and learn more about the vibrant farming past of the island. Or learn more about the aquatic life with a snorkeling adventure or go all-in with a 5-hour fishing excursion and learn from the pros who have been fishing for thousands of years.
Dining Out on Sao Miguel
In Furnas, the must-order-dish is Cozido das Caldeiras, a stew that is slow-cooked in the volcanically-active earth. It’s like a boiled dinner – cabbage, potatoes, and meats – all slow-cooked for 8 hours in a tasty sauce. We ate it twice – Terra Nostra experience was lovely, but twice as expensive as Restaurante Tony’s down the street. Both dishes were equally delicious, so if a ritzy experience, or extra euros, aren’t your thing, opt for Tony’s.
You can actually watch the restaurants cooking Cozido in the caldeiras (caldeiras are where boiling water comes out of the earth) in Furnas, for a small parking fee. There is a walkway around the caldeiras and if you time it right you can see the cooks putting their giant pots in and out of holes in the earth. They cover them with lids instead of burying them, which seems like a faster, more sanitary option. This whole attraction is somewhat touristy, but it was a neat little park. There was also a beautiful grove of cedar trees and picnic tables next to the caldeira, which is where I took the cover photo for this book.
If you want a truly local food experience, stumble into Restaurante Lagoa Azul in Sete Cidades on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday. The busy buffet is full of local grub, and you can try it all – fish, octopus, pork knuckles, beans, quails, limpets. 12euro for the buffet includes beer and coffee.
And this local place in Porto Formoso doesn’t look like much, but has the best octopus stew and fish soup (for 2 euro!) – a very local vibe, compared to the other places tourists frequent. The octopus on the island was the best I’ve ever had – I don’t know how they do it but you can cut it with a fork and it’s full of flavor.
For a more high-end foodie experience, head to the big city of Ponta Delgada (more like a big town). The good restaurants require reservations, even in the off-season. We had dinner at A Tasca and it did not disappoint. The upscale tapas-style place has a sprawling menu printed like a newspaper and a fun, lively atmosphere. We got a few tapas to share including the fish stew, which was delivered in a huge bowl covered with a puff pastry. There were probably 10 kinds of sea animals in the stew, including multiple fish species – bones and all. Incredibly good.
We also wanted to eat at Boca de Cena, but it would have been a long drive after we moved to our Furnas AirBnb. Boca de Cena is a small place, operated by a single visionary chef who waits and cooks. I hear there is now a second person to help wait on tables. The space is small, hot, trendy and moody – with only 10 small tables – reservations required at this place. It’s a little hard to find with Google maps, but look for the round lit Heineken sign over the cobble stone street, and it’s just around the corner. Consistently rated as the top restaurant in the Azores and is definitely a place we will visit next time.
Azorean Foodie Adventure
Of course we couldn’t try it all, so a food tour might be the best way to get all the highlights quickly and inexpensively – plus you’ll meet some other interesting travelers! Donald and I love food tours so we can try a lot of different things, and learn more about the history and context of the foods we’re trying. Azores Getaways offers a few different food tours to suit different tastes — learn about those tours here.
More on Azorean Cuisine
There is a lot more to talk about: The Olé Ice Cream bars that are sold everywhere, the historical importance of sardines to the Portuguese economy, the limpets that are on every menu (not my favorite), the white farm cheese they serve with bread and chili sauce before meals, the piri piri pepper hot sauce – it’s so good and super spicy (and sometimes, slightly salty). And of course, the sweet breads and Portuguese muffins!
Keep reading about the Azores…
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