The problem, you see, was that almost every restaurant we went to in the Azores served only fish dishes. At first we thought we had accidentally chosen “fish-only” or “seafood-only” restaurants, but after the 4th or 5th restaurant, it finally dawned on us that perhaps, just perhaps, people in the Azores ate mostly fish because fish were abundantly available in the ocean around every island!
Now maybe that is not a problem at all for you “fish-lovers”. And maybe you’re healthier than all get-out, but I cannot stand fish. I wish I liked it; I really do, but it is the stench of it that is the worst, followed by either no flavour, or greasy weedy flavour, or staring at the whole fish that makes me start gagging. Usually it is a combination of the above, and it makes me want to run straight-away out of the room. Out of courtesy however, I feel obliged to allow whomever I am dining with to enjoy their fishy meal. So there you have it – a diet that starts by making you lose your appetite! How clever is that?!
The Azores have an economic base of agriculture and fishing, and their fishing territory is of a size that any country would like to have, encompassing over one million square kilometres. Deep-sea fishing provides a staple export to Europe, and Tuna is the most important fish. No small fish!
Corn is an important crop, and tiny water-powered corn mills are scattered through out the countryside.
The Azores are known for their cheeses too, especially the island of Sao Jorge.
There are a number of small factories in the Azores. You will see primarily dairies and cheese factories, however there are also sugar beet and tobacco plantations, vineyards, and a passionfruit factory that produces two passion fruit liqueurs that are exported to Ontario and British Columbia, in Canada. We toured a passionfruit factory orchard, and of course we bought some of the passion fruit liqueur to take home.
Restaurants offer simple, basic food. You won’t find gourmet or extensive varied menus in the Azores; the food is rustic and peasant style. Fish is a basic on every menu, from tuna to swordfish, and is usually well-prepared.
Since I cannot abide fish, as I have previously mentioned (the smell alone enough to gag me, not to mention a definite aversion to looking at the whole fish), I expected to enjoy a variety of fresh seafood such as lobster and crab, however these were seldom available, and when they were available, they were extremely expensive. Limpit clams were available on Sao Jorge but again at a high price. Imagine my dismay at eagerly reading my first few restaurant menus only to see dish after dish of fish, fish and more fish.
Squid was on most menus and it was one of the few seafood dishes that was not fish, and that I could eat.
Azoreans usually refer to beef and pork as Meat, so that was a little confusing, and veal tasted more like old stringy beef than the tender delicate beef we are accustomed to. Also by Canadian standards, the food was occasionally more salty than we could eat, but we ascertained that this was related to the salted cod that is part of the Azorean diet. Salt Cod, eggs and potatoes. Why, oh why, did they have to ruin perfectly good potatoes and eggs with hyper-salty fish?
This is boiled pork and vegetables.
Potatoes though, were particularly tasty and sweet so my Azorean diet consisted of potatoes and salad. Losing weight was a bonus I had not planned on while visiting the Azores, but really there were days I was starving hungry because there was nothing but fish everywhere we went. I know, fish is good for you – blah, blah, blah. I’d rather eat rotten eggs, thank you very much. Salads were a little hard to come by but worth waiting for with the sweetest butter lettuce I have ever tasted. Delicate and buttery, it was delicious even if it was always served plain, but not exactly filling.
Leaving the fish, and eating only the potatoes, resulted in some strange and puzzled looks from restaurant servers, often looking back over their shoulder to see if they missed something, or leaning in to mumble something to fellow staff members, followed by head-shaking and more strange looks.
Fried foods are common and on several occasions we literally poured off small saucers of excess grease floating on the bottom of the plate.
If, like me, you can’t stand fish, the cheeses of the Azores are delectable, including the local non-pasteurized variety. In fact, Sao Jorge cheeses are often found in the top quality cheeses stores around the world, but cheeses were seldom served in restaurants, so I couldn’t even have a meal of bread and cheese.
Soups and stews are also very common dishes in the Azores. Soup is also not a favourite food of mine, and fish stew? Well, that is even worse than fresh fish in my book.
Wait, there was one soup that was unique and delicious: Mint Leaf and Bread Soup, but it was not common on every menu.
Now if you go to the Markets in the Azores, you will be able to decrease your appetite even further as per the Azores Diet Plan with an additional helpful experience: all types of sea critters will be available for your perusal.
If that doesn’t decrease your appetite, I don’t know what will!
The desserts, however, were simply exquisite – when they were available. Again, desserts were not commonly served in restaurants, but prepared more often for special celebrations, or in dessert shops. When I could find them, they were home-made, rich, and full of flavor – no whipped oil and air. I not only lost ten pounds while I was in the Azores, despite eating mostly potatoes, lettuce and bread, but I brought home Dessert Cookbooks in Portuguese, even though I have no command of the language. Many of the desserts are coconut and/or custard based, and often have rich chocolate in them, and since they grow their own pineapple, there were some excellent pineapple cakes that are a little like pancakes.
Chocolate Chestnut Cake, or Bolo de Chocolate com Castanhas – a rich, not too sweet, cake.
Queijadas da Graciosa – creamy, buttery cinnamon pastries.
Figs stuffed with chocolate and almonds.
Queijadas-da-Vila-Azores made with eggs, molasses, cinnamon and corn flour, dusted with powdered sugar.
Receita de Sericaia (Alentejo) – an egg pudding.
Most of the menus are written in Portuguese and the waiters do not speak English. It was often an adventure just to discover what we would be served because we were not sure what we were ordering!
At one snack bar, we were starving, and just pointed to four or five items. We were served a cold and inedible hot dog (cachoro), a crepe-like item, a dry sandwich, some fish balls, and a good dessert. In one of the hotel restaurants, which had an english menu, I asked what type of stuffing was referred to in the description. The waitress said, “with old grapes”. After blank looks all around, I asked if she meant raisins. Indeed she had, and she shyly apologized for her poor english. In general, food at the classier and more expensive restaurants was no better than the small restaurants. Bread, and sometimes cheese, are brought to the table as soon as you are comfortably seated, and you are charged per person for it, unless you specifically say you do not want it.
Snack Bars are the alternative to a restaurant in the Azores and offer wine and liquor as well as espresso, desserts, and sometimes a sandwich or other small snack. At one snack bar, we had one Superbock beer (a local beer – very good), one sausage croissant, one chocolate croissant (exquisite), and what I thought was an almond (amandao) croissant, but had a type of egg custard filling. Snack bar prices are reasonable.
Don’t be surprised if you have difficulty locating most addresses – they are often written in very small print and often not facing the street on which their address is indicated. We must have walked by a restaurant we were looking for half a dozen times before we actually saw the sign, facing a side street, and readable only when you were standing directly in front of it.
If you love fish, you will be in heaven in the Azores; if not, you can enjoy the Azores Diet Plan that I’ve shared with you today: butter lettuce, potatoes and bread, and if you’re lucky enough to find them on a restaurant menu, a few luscious desserts like Malassadas (fried bread with sugar, and sometimes with a sweet sauce), which took me back in time to my Mom’s delicious homemade bread doughnuts, which looked and tasted almost identical.