The Azores: Spearfishing, Hydrangeas, and Cows

This one wasn’t my fault. To help me bridge the long two months gap between Paris and Thailand, my friend Doriene dragged me to the Azores. I paid her back by feeding her octopus and blood sausage.

JPEG image-9726A88B34D8-1The Azores are a volcanic archipelago in the northern Atlantic, a Portuguese autonomous region. The population of the nine islands is about 250K people and one million cows, plus a few dogs, cats and ducks. The #1 product is dairy, but tourism is growing. The soft oceanic climate created by the Gulf Stream allows the cows to be grazing outdoors all year, moving from one hydrangea fenced field to another, followed by mobile milking machines looking like giant black rubber octopi. The fertile volcanic soil nourishes everything into overachievement, making tiny Australian ferns into trees the likes of the Carboniferous era and hydrangeas into fences that need pruning.

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They grow wild everywhere in a profusion of flowers whose color depends on the acidity of the soil. One can change it by sticking rusty nails by the roots; a whole bush will grow from a branch stuck in the ground, and since the cows won’t eat them, there’s your cheap, easy and beautiful Azorean fence.

Another harvest comes from the ocean. Fishermen free dive to spearfish in the rocky, unsettled waters.

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The trip from the sea to the plate is short. Essentially Portuguese, Azorean cooking is plain and tastes healthy. Sadly, sauces and spices haven’t perverted it. Salt is scarce and pepper is a four-letter word. Asking for it got me dirty looks. They acted as if I’d insulted their mother’s cooking. They gave me Piri-Piri, a sauce of red peppers with more color than taste.

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The ever-present volcanic activity gave birth to mineral baths, hot springs, and a unique cooking style called Cocida which fits the Portuguese Taste to a T. There’s a recipe:

1. Start with a volcano.

2. Make a hole in it and line it with concrete.

3. Put root vegetables in a very large pan. If adventurous add kale. Cover with any meat and fish. Top with blood sausage.

4. Cover tightly and drop in the hole. Ignore it till dinner.

5. Recover and serve. Wash down with red wine. Lots of wine.

6. Fry leftovers and serve fresh tomorrow.

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Religion is big here. Catholic of course. The houses sport tiles with religious images for divine protection. They also sport elaborate doorknobs where the bread man, traveling door to door, hangs the daily bread.

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Everything,  houses, roads, fences, fountains, is made from black volcanic rock. Most beaches are fields of lunar looking black rocks. The few natural swimming holes have been improved by pouring concrete over the rocks. Beachgoers lay their towels on the concrete in an austere approximation of beach behavior.

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Pineapple is their most important crop. It’s supposedly the sweetest and the best in the world, but it needs 2.5 years in a greenhouse to mature. When the fruit is harvested the plant dies too and the process has to start all over again. Seeing the extraordinary labor it requires, I am surprised it only costs about 6 euros/kilo.

They make liquor out of it, as they do from any other island-grown fruit, including milk,  but the real drink is wine, red and rough, most of it from the mainland, as they call Portugal. It helps with the cuisine.

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There’s the Azores: A friendly country of spectacular landscapes, kind climate, pineapples, hydrangeas, and cows.

Rada Jones MD is an  ER  Doc in Upstate NY where she lives with her husband, Steve, and his deaf black cat Paxil. She authored three ER novels, OVERDOSE, MERCY, and POISON.