IN THE ATLANTIC
& COOKING ARTICLE
in the Atlantic
the Azores. But these nine Portuguese islands harbor
a sturdy, distinctive cuisine
by David Leite, published in The Los Angeles Times
get all kinds of responses when I tell people where
I'm from. My favorite was uttered at a party by a young
woman swathed in a gauzy, tie-dyed dress who was eating
an alarming amount of hummus: "Oh, the Azores!
You know, they're the remains of the lost city of Atlantis.
I lived there in a past life."
people know surprisingly little about my family's homeland,
and even less about our food. And for good reason: Strewn
some 1,000 miles off the coast of Portugal, the Azoresão
Miguel, Faial, São Jorge and six other islands
happily marooned in the middle of the Atlantic. Unfortunately,
so too is our distinctive cuisine.
geographic isolation is only one conspirator in our
food's invisibility. Like most peasant cuisines, Azorean
cooking is home-based; economics prevent most families
from frequenting restaurants. Mine was so poor that
acordas soups filled with swollen chunks of crusty
homemade bread sometimes all there was to fill
owning a cafe or pastelaria (pastry shop) held little
promise. So when Azoreans arrived in the United States
during the great waves of immigration in the early part
of the 20th century, few opened eating establishments.
In turn, our food remained largely undiscovered by Americans.
mothers and grandmothers who wanted to formally share
their recipes were thwarted by illiteracy, because in
the old country most of them weren't required to attend
school. Without any permanent records, many family favorites
disappeared from the table when the cooks passed away.
such obstacles, Azorean food has managed to thrive -
even resist being overtaken by the Mediterranean-infused
cuisine of mainland Portugal.
food is more authentic Portuguese because we have fewer
Spanish influences," says Ana Taveira, a well-known
cook on the island of São Miguel. "We don't use
much cilantro, curry or cinnamon. We're more heavy-handed
with other spices, especially the hot ones." She
adds proudly: "Ours is a simple, hearty food."
tiny islands, the archipelago's foods are remarkably
regionalized, differing by island, town and even vizinhanca,
to Deolinda Avila, Palo Alto author of the self-published
book "Foods of the Azores Islands," São Miguel
and some towns on Pico lead the way in the use of hot
Azevedo, a São Jorge native who owns LaSalette Restaurant
in Sonoma, says, "Polvo [octopus] wasn't as popular
in my family or on my island as it was in other places.
We liked lamprey and limpets more."
To further compound our rich gastronomic diversity,
some islands embrace spices such as cumin, allspice
and cloves while others dismiss them entirely.
Nowhere is Azorean individuality seen more than in sopa
de couves, the islands' version of Portugal's unofficial
national dish, caldo verde.
de couves is made differently in the Azores than on
the mainland," explains Avila. "On Faial we
use more potatoes and don't mash them [to make a thickened
base]. We also don't cut the greens into thin strips.
It's a more country dish the way we make it."
include the addition of red beans, ham hocks or beef
shanks and a sizable portion of chouri~ço (spicy smoked
sausage) the miserly single slice of the mainland
Azoreans can't even agree on what key ingredient makes
the best sopa de couves. Faial cooks prefer collard
greens because they like the tender texture. But don't
dare tell that to cooks from São Miguel; to them, only
the ruggedness of kale will do.
Yet wherever they live in the islands, cooks concede
one point: bacalhau (salt cod) and porco (pork) are
Cod was an obvious resource for seafaring islanders.
"Fishing came naturally to us," says João
Encarnação, a native mainlander who is now the chef
de cuisine to the Portuguese ambassador in New York
City. "But it was the salting of the cod for the
long trip home from the North Atlantic that made it
a staple of Portuguese life. Suddenly, an affordable
food could be stored indefinitely."
Salt cod plays such an important role in the lives of
all Portuguese that it's said we have 365 recipes for
bacalhau for each day of the year.
Pork, on the other hand, may seem like an unusual staple
on sleepy volcanic islands sequestered away at sea.
But to Azoreans, it was considered wasteful to slaughter
cows merely for meat. Their milk and cheese, which are
made into a myriad of delicacies, have served as an
unending source of food and income. So pork, quite literally
the other meat, rose to preeminence.
Pork is so highly prized that every year around Christmas
families revel in a two to three day celebration called
a matanca de porco.
On the first day, the fattest pig is slaughtered and
cleaned, then hung from the ceiling of the home for
viewing. That night, friends and family come to see
it as what Avila calls "proof of [the family's]
accomplishments." A simple yet plentiful spread
of food and drink is accompanied by joyous singing and
following days are devoted to butchering the pig to
make the famous linguica and chourico sausages, and
to prepare cuts for winter meals. As Azorean frugality
prescribes, no part of the pig is wasted. Even the organ
meats are pressed into service in stews, cozidos (boiled
dinners) and soups.
and pork may be characteristic of our cuisine, but what
really defines it are the dessertsand toothachingly
sweet. The Moors contributed this taste for rich, sweet,
eggy desserts and we quickly found inventive ways with
the whole egg, the white as well as the yolk.
the Moors may have introduced egg sweets, the addiction
to these treats can be blamed squarely on the islands'
nuns. To earn money for their convents, the holy sisters
of the 17th and 18th centuries spent their days behind
cloistered walls perfecting such whimsically christened
delights as olhos de sogra (mother-in-law's eyes), suspiros
(sighs) and barrigas de freiras (nuns' bellies).
the end, every cuisine is a product of its physical
and cultural environment. Part volcanic soil and salt
air, part peasant ingenuity and thrift, the hearty fare
of the Azores doesn't dazzle, but instead comforts.
Some cooks believe it helps assuage the powerful saudade,
or longing to belong, every Portuguese person is said
to feelof which secluded, beautiful corner of
Atlantis he lives on.
Leite runs Leite's Culinaria Web site
Hub-UK : email@example.com