Lying about two-thirds of the way between the United States and mainland Europe, the breathtaking Portuguese archipelago of the Azores is still relatively unknown to tourists. It’s a bit surprising given the beauty of the islands, but many people have never even heard of this volcanic paradise in the middle of the Atlantic. Unlike most island economies that depend on tourism to sustain themselves, however, the economy of the Azores is still heavily based on agriculture. While tourism is beginning to slowly grow there, these incredibly self-sufficient islands have stayed true to their agricultural roots.
It’s therefore no surprise that travelers to the Azores can rest assured that the local fare is in fact very, very local. From pineapple greenhouses and organic tea plantations to endless green fields of happily grazing dairy cows, the main island of São Miguel is a farmer’s paradise. Read on for a glimpse of just what makes food in the Azores so special.
On São Miguel, the dairy cows run the show (and often times control the traffic). The dairy industry in the Azores is huge. In fact, the main island is home to more cows than people. It’s not all about quantity on the “green island,” though. The quality of the Azores’ dairy products can’t be beaten. It’s actually forbidden for dairy cows on the islands to live in barns or eat anything other than their natural diet of grass. The milk is hormone free, antibiotic free, and just about as fresh as it gets.
These high-quality standards are applied to all the lovely dairy products to be sampled on the island. Everything from the Azorean milk to the cheeses, yogurts, ice creams, and even the local milk liquor produced on São Miguel is well worth a try. And another plus? The photogenic dairy cows covering the island’s rolling green hills make for some postcard-worthy scenes.
It might seem strange that this tropical fruit makes the top of the must-try list of food in the Azores. After all, the Azores aren’t tropical islands. But that’s exactly what makes the pineapples there so unique. In the Azores, pineapples are cultivated in greenhouses where it takes two years to grow one of these pineapples from seed to fruit. Farmers fill the greenhouses with smoke to make the plants flower and sell the small but very sweet fruits produced in this process all over the islands.
At A. Arruda Pineapple Plantation, just outside of Ponta Delgada, guests can get a closer look at how the pineapple cultivation works in the Azores. You can even step inside the greenhouses to check out the pineapple plants at every stage in their slow process of maturation. Try the deliciously sweet fruit by itself or sample one of the many pineapple jams, cakes, or liquors sold in shops and restaurants.
On the north side of São Miguel island in the town of Ribeira Grande, A Mulher de Capote Licores produces a variety of quite unique types of liquors with locally grown ingredients. At A Mulher de Capote, they pride themselves on producing the highest quality liquors from only the highest quality ingredients. The award-winning maracuja (passion fruit) liquor is made from only the best organic passion fruits grown on the island. At the factory, visitors can enjoy as many free samples of as many types of liquors as they’d like. Choose from coffee, pineapple, passion fruit, blackberry, or the local milk liquor (and so many more) and have a relaxing afternoon sipping Azorean liquors and learning a little more about their production in Ribeira Grande.
São Miguel island is home to Europe’s only tea plantations. Both Chá Gorreana and Porto Formoso produce completely organic tea. At the plantations, visitors can get a closer look at the process of harvesting tea leaves and producing different types of teas. After a tour of the plantations, sample the delicious tea in the tasting room or take a walk around the lovely grounds of the tea plantations.
5. Cooking Methods
The Azorean people take advantage of the volcanic activity on São Miguel in any way they can. The island’s geothermal activity not only makes for some of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet but also provides the means for one very interesting gastronomic tradition. In the town of Furnas, restaurants and families actually cook their food in buckets underground. First, they wake up at dawn to put the day’s food in the earth. Then they simply wait until around lunchtime when they finally take out a perfectly cooked stew to serve up at local restaurants or family get-togethers.
In Furnas, you can watch your lunch come out of the ground around noon and then head to one of the local restaurants to sample the traditional Furnas stew, a dish made of several kinds of meat, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, greens, and rice.
Finally, if you’re looking for good restaurants, there are so many in Ponta Delgada. I asked a few locals for recommendations when I was there, and they definitely didn’t disappoint.
A Tasca: Ponta Delgada
If you want to try typical Azorean or Portuguese food, this is the place to go. Any local will recommend A Tasca as the one restaurant you shouldn’t miss in Ponta Delgada. The atmosphere is very local and the food is outstanding.
Louvre Michaelense: Ponta Delgada
This is a lovely café in the center of Ponta Delgada to spend some down time after a day of touring the island. Enjoy a pot of Azorean tea or a lovely coffee with something sweet in this beautifully decorated café where every detail is important.
Rotas da Ilha Verde: Ponta Delgada
Rotas is a very special restaurant. Although vegetarian food may not be very popular in Portuguese cuisine, this restaurant does it right. More than right, in fact- the food at Rotas is absolutely delicious. In addition to the outstanding and very affordable menu, the atmosphere of the restaurant is also quite unique. Built inside an old Ponta Delgada home, only a handful of tables sit in a couple of quiet, dimly lit rooms. Eating at Rotas feels more like going to a dinner party at a friend’s place– just make sure you make a reservation ahead of time.