Island vacations should be relaxing—napping in a hammock, drinks on the beach. But between lengthy flights and crowds of hungry tourists, a trip to paradise can leave a sour taste on the palate of a seasoned sightseer.
There are some island destinations where you can still escape the crush of beach-going crowds, though. One of our favorites is the Azores, situated about 900 miles off of Portugal’s west coast.
The lack of white sandy beaches and minimal resorts keep away tourists whose ideas of island vacations come from the choruses of Jimmy Buffet songs, and its combination of Portuguese expats and longtime locals give the Azores their unique flavor and culture. And all of it is just a four-hour flight from Boston.
Once you’re there, Azorean food and drink will keep you coming back. Foods you thought you knew take on new, transcendent forms. From mineral-rich wines and salty peppers to hearty grass-fed beef and sweetly spiced blood sausages, here are the top foods you need to try on your next trip to the Azores.
1. Wine. The wines from the islands are still relatively new, but they are putting out some great ones. White wines from São Miguel are already reaching maturity, and the red wine coming from Pico is exceptional, especially the Curral Atlântis Reserve 2007.
2. Pineapple. Originally grown as an ornamental plant, it actually took Azoreans a while before they realized they could eat it, too. Azores pineapple is like nothing found in the States. They are smaller than conventional pineapples, producing a sweetly dense and juicy variety of the fruit. Locals eat it with everything, from lightly fried phyllo-wrapped blood sausage and pineapple appetizers to pineapple carpaccio delicately dusted with local cinnamon and washed down with a dram of sugary smooth pineapple liquor.
3. Fried mackerel. This delicate little fish is found everywhere along the coast of these islands, making it the best bet if you want a fresh catch. The traditional way to cook local mackerel is to fry them and serve them up as a side dish. Even though you may be tempted to filet your fish on your plate, the Azorean way to eat them is to pop them like French fries, consuming everything but the tail (head, bones, and all) in a matter of a few bites.
4. Black sausage. Azoreans have been making black sausage (aka blood sausage) for generations, and most locals have their own favorite recipes passed down from their families. What separates Azorean blood sausage from others around the world is the careful blend of seasonings, including local cinnamon.
5. Pimenta da terra. This cherry-red pepper looks like the love child of a bell pepper and an Anaheim pepper but tastes nothing like either. Pimenta da terra translates roughly to pepper of the land, and it is lightly sweet and ever so slightly spicy when eaten fresh. The traditional way to eat this pepper is to marinate it in salty water or olive oil to bring out the spice of the pepper, and it’s most often found garnishing a bowl of risotto or lying delicately atop a thick steak for an added touch of local flavor.
6. Cozido das Furnas. We have some bad news: Unless you live on an active volcano, there’s no chance of ever being able to recreate this dish at home. The good news is, if you go to the Azores you won’t have to. Cozido das Furnas is a stew of sorts, where layers of chicken, blood sausage, pork and beef sit in a large metal pot beneath a blanket of cabbage, carrots, potatoes and other vegetables. The pot is prepared nightly at restaurants like Caldeiras & Vulcões Restaurant, where the chef covers the large pot with a cloth before burying the mixture in the volcanic soil early in the morning to be slow cooked by the natural heat of the caldeiras before unearthing the pot hours later. Not only is the dish flavorful and filling, it’s also an amazing experience to make a trip out to the caldeiras in Furnas to witness the chefs pulling their pots from the ground and rushing them to their kitchens, where they’ll serve up piping hot plates of the stew to guests who’ve pre-ordered the dish.
7. Chá verde. The Azores is home to the only industrial tea plantations in all of Europe. Both located on the island of São Miguel, Gorreana and Porto Formoso tea factories produce phenomenal blends of tea. Although most people on the islands drink the premium-grade black teas, green tea has actually been a highly prized blend in the islands since the early 1750s, when the leaf was found growing wild in the Azores. What sets this tea apart is the open-air drying phase that lets these delicate leaves dehydrate in the salty sea in order for them to release an earthy and uniquely Azorean flavor with each hot brew.
8. Flor de Açafroa. Commonly known as safflower, this colorful spice is as close to Spanish saffron as you can get. In turn, it has earned the nickname “bastard saffron.” Despite the harsh moniker, Azorean açafroa actually tastes incredibly like its highly prized cousin and adds a similar color, aroma and flavor to dishes like paellas, poached fish, pastas, etc. The best part is that this version costs about a third of traditional saffron (you can buy a 20-gram container of the spice at the Mercado da Graça in Ponta Delgada for less than $6).
9. Local cheese. Cows are ubiquitous throughout the Azores, freely grazing along lush pastures and lava stone-lined prairies. Almost every day is a good day in the life of an Azorean dairy cow, and you can literally taste the contented difference in their milk. From the savory and buttery flavors of Queijo 'Nova Açores' Amanteigado Alho e Salsa (“New Azores” garlic and parsley cheese) to the silky, smooth texture of the rindless queijo fresco, try any of these cheeses any time of the day in the islands (topped with jam on bread for breakfast, served with mashed pimento de terra for an appetizer).