05 May 2014

Review: Azores Food Round-Up

About a month ago my sister and I embarked on an ill-conceived journey to the Azorean island of São Miguel. If, like me, you have only heard of the Azores but have no idea where they are, the short answer is they are in the middle of nowhere, and the even shorter answer is that you can just google them. Initially I thought I would write a diary post every day about what I had been eating but that plan failed immediately when I decided instead to spend all of my spare time reading in front of a raging fire.

São Miguel was a pretty nice place. Sometimes it looked like this:

And other times it looked like this:

Portuguese cuisine has never been something I’m even remotely interested in it. I don’t know much about it beyond that they have a lot of roast chicken, custard tarts, those ceramic rooster that probably are not for eating, and fish. But the Azores seem to be a bit different. I don't recall seeing any roast chickens or even very many custard tarts or ceramic roosters, but they did have piles and piles of disgusting fish-products and a few other things that made me sick to even be in the vicinity of.

I think the best way to tackle this post will be to divide up the food I encountered into two categories: the food that I ate while I was there and the food that utterly repulse me. So here we go!

The Food I Ate:

When we first arrived at out cottage—which was the absolute best—out host greeted us with some Easter chocolates and a delicious Easter cake, which was so delicious that we waited until Easter was over and then bought a second, discounted Easter cake which we couldn’t finish and ended up throwing in the garbage at the airport.
At first I was kind of hesitant to try the Easter cake because it looked like a small turkey covered in cloves and waiting to be stuffed. My sister tried it first and we were both pleasantly surprised that it was just a mound of sweet bread dotted with chocolate chips and some chocolate cream filling. It was delicious. That said, I wouldn't put it past the Portuguese to sell small turkeys as "sweet Easter treats" based on some of the other things they tried to pass off as Easter delicacies.

For our first dinner we had silly ronis with meat sauce. I have to be honest here. Even though my sister was kind enough to cater to my every need on this trip, which more often than not included feeding me, this was not my favourite thing. I love the silly ronis of course—they were as silly as I could have ever dreamed of—but the sauce was just too sweet. I can't even remember what went in there, but I guess maybe there was too much red pepper? I'm not sure. It was just too ... tangy. And I really don't like that in a pasta sauce. But it also definitely was not the worst thing, and the pasta shape was so novel to me that it almost made up for the tangy sauce.

One experience definitely worth talking about is that I had a kiwi for the first time in over twenty years. I seem to recall eating kiwis at my dad's when I was very little and I had probably had them once or twice since then if they were in a fruit salad, but kiwis are fruits that I typically avoid. I'm not exactly sure why, but I think it probably has to do with the labour involved in preparing them which, admittedly, is quite minimal. The kiwi I ate had been peeled by my sister, presumably for my benefit, but I honestly don't think I would mind eating the skin. It seems like it might be a bit thicker and tougher than peach skin, but I really like peach skin and think it's disgusting and wasteful when people eat the peach without. Anyway: the kiwi. The kiwi was just fine. I don't really feel comfortable saying much more about it, and I'm not convinced that I will eat another kiwi in the next twenty years. It was certainly good, but it just wasn't good enough to warrant eating again. I'm so used to eating the same thing over and over again that I have never felt the need to really change up my diet, so I would never eat a kiwi just because I wanted a change from the regular fruit I eat. But whatever. I guess it wasn't really worth talking about. Anyway, it looks pretty great sliced up here:

Because the island was so small (so small: it was only 15km wide and 60km long), we never really found ourselves in the position of needing to eat out very often. We typically ate in our cottage. In addition to the pasta on the first night, we also ate rice with some sliced up ham coil, roasted cauliflower, buns, those delicious chocolate flutes, and pineapples.

The rice was fine. I specifically requested that we have rice with pepper and onion fried in a pan, but once again it was just a bit too sweet, and once again I am blaming the red pepper. It's my understanding that if you want to have rice with pepper and onion, there has to be a bit of jalapeño because red bell peppers are just too sweet on their own. The rice was served with roasted cauliflower, which my sister assured me would be the best cauliflower I had ever tasted. But it wasn't. I didn't really like it. It was at once too crunchy but also too mushy. It just didn't work for me, although I will admit that when it came out of the oven, it certainly looked like something I would like (the picture of it looks disgusting).

We had the ham coil cut up and fried with the rice, which was probably the best part. But later I tried the ham coil on its own, and I didn't like it. It was too salty and too something else.

I will probably go out and buy a pack of these right now.
By far the culinary highlight of the trip were these chocolate flutes that you can find everywhere but that I have always associated with "Europe," probably because they're often marketed as a European delicacy in here. They did not disappoint. I love these things. If I could stop gobbling them up for just one minute, one day I would like to see what it's like to use one as a straw for drinking coffee. They're probably one of the best cookie-foods that are on the market today, second only to Dad's chocolate chip cookies (the ones made by Mr. Christie—definitely not my dad's cookies, which if they exist, probably have zucchini and cayenne in them).

 We did go out to eat a few times on this trip, but usually only for a quick lunch or for multiple galãos, which are essentially just lattes. A fun fact about our linguistic adventures in the Azores is that galão is the only Portuguese word either of us bothered to learn on our entire trip. I guess my sister probably ate a few different things, but I only ever had fries and one time a burger. The fries were pretty hit and miss in Portugal. The first plate I had was in the town of Furnas, which is famous for its geothermal activity. One thing I learned about myself is to stop being lured to a place by the promise of geothermal activity. I hate geothermal activity. It stinks and is disgusting. Someone described it as "earth farts," which is 100% correct. At one point we drove through an unexpected cloud of sulphur with our windows rolled down, and I was certain that I was going to throw up. All of this is relevant because each time I brought the fries to my mouth, they seemed to smell like sulphur and it made me sick. I still ate all of them. The second plate of fries I had was in Ponta Delgada and were delicious precisely because they tasted almost identical to McDonald's fries, but with the added bonus a delicious pint of beer on the side (the Portuguese seem to be pretty into lagers, which is great for me because generic lagers are pretty much the only beer I'll drink). Last, but certainly not least, on our last night on São Miguel we went out for a great dinner at a restaurant recommended to us by our host. I must admit I had my doubts about this place: it looked like a weird and not very good beach snack-hut, but it turned out to be really great. I had a burger with fries, and was relieved when the burger came just as I ordered it: totally plain with cheese. By no means was the burger great, but it was pretty solid and I don't really have any complaints about it.

Left to Right: sulphur fries, McDonald's imposter fries, and the best fries of the trip.

 Before moving on to all of the gross food that I didn't eat, I want to speak briefly of the pineapples. I don't want to spend too much time on them because I am tentatively working on a separate post for them. For whatever reason, the Azorean islands grow pineapples. Not because they grow naturally there, but because they used to grow oranges, but then some mysterious orange-plague wiped out the entire crop on the islands, so they switched their focus to greenhouse pineapples. And you guys: these pineapples are no joke. The Azorean pineapples are, hands down, the absolute best pineapples I have ever tasted in my life. Maybe this has to do with filling the greenhouse with smoke, which has the exact same life-restoring qualities as an eighteenth century tobacco enema. These pineapples were so sweet, so juicy, and so adorably round and small that we couldn't even bring ourselves to care that they were twice the price as the imported Costa Rican pineapples.

My sister tried to rouse me from my slumber with this plate of freshly slice pineapple - and it worked! I would get
out of any bed just to taste that delicious pineapple once more.

 That pretty much covers everything I ate on this trip. I had a bag of chips once and some yogurt, but they didn't seem work talking about. I also tried a bite of my sister's Mister Corn chocolate bar, and I wasn't sure whether to put it in the "Food I Ate" category or the "Gross Food" category, so I'm going to opt for the latter because it is actually pretty gross.

The Food I Didn't Eat / Was Afraid Of:

Turns out Portugal in general and São Miguel more specifically has a tonne of really disgusting and frightening food on offer, most of which we observed at the grocery store and some of which I observed my sister eating.

The first gross food I encountered was this horrific bread loaf with whole eggs in it. It's called folar and is eaten in Portugal during Easter because bread was served during the Last Supper (also: every other supper) and because the eggs are supposed to be a symbolic representation of the Resurrection of Christ. Except it's not really all that symbolic of anything and I would rather take a bite out of the literal body of Christ, even after it had been sitting in that dank cave for three days, than to be unpleasantly surprised by an entire egg in my bread.

We also saw these pig heads on display in the grocery store, and I'm going to be totally honest with you here: I have absolutely no idea how one would go about actually eating the head of an animal. Do you just scrape the flesh off the skull and onto a plate? Does each person get their own head and you just gnaw at it like one of those giant jaw breakers? Does anyone actually eat them at all, or are they just for decoration? I really don't understand. It's not even that eating flesh off of a skull disgusts me that much more than eating ribs or a drumstick, but I just can't understand how it's done, and I am too afraid to watch a Youtube tutorial of it, although you can be guaranteed that one exists. If any of you know, please don't tell me because I think I am happier not knowing.

The grocery store also had a huge fish display, and each day the display was more disgusting than the days that had preceded. In addition to the consistent offering of what appeared to be dumb and revolting group fish, there were also daily specials, like silver eels, some giant yellow python-eel, squids, and on one day, two giant rays layered on top of each other. Every day that fish display was a more grotesque parade-of-horribles and seeing it had a really profound effect on me. I have always known that I hate everything that comes out of the ocean, but I don't think I had ever seen this kind of sea garbage on display before, and certainly not as something that could possibly be edible. What does one even do with a ray of that size? Do you grill it? Will there be a crab inside of it? And if there is, do you have to pay extra for the crab?

My sister and I more or less ate fairly similarly on this trip, but on our last night (when I had the burger and fries), my sister ordered a disgusting, fat tuna steak covered in pumpkin seeds. She said it was good, but I'm pretty sure it was disgusting. There's something about "steaks" of fish that just doesn't sit right with me, and not only because I hate all fish. I guess I don't like thinking about how some fish are large enough to actually provide a slab of meat that could for all intents and purposes be referred to as a steak. Anyway, here is a picture of it. The potatoes did look pretty delicious though. I was too afraid to try them because I couldn't be certain they hadn't touched the fish at any point.

Finally, my sister bought a Mister Corn chocolate bar in the grocery store. It really was just a chocolate bar with corn nuts inside, in the same way that you might get a chocolate bar with almonds or hazelnuts inside. I did actually try a square of it, and it wasn't half as disgusting as I expected it would be, but it still wasn't for me and I still think that the idea of combining corn nuts and chocolate is a mistake. I get that some people like sweet and savoury together (I think it's a disgusting combination, with the notable exception of salted caramel), but ... I don't know. Corn nuts?

The good news is that they really didn't skimp on the corn nuts.

A Few Stray Thoughtz:

We also went to a tea plantation. I think the Azores are the only (or at least one of the few) places in Europe with large-scale tea plantations. The Portuguese even brought over two Chinese tea masters to teach the locals how to farm tea, and then I believe they had them build a massive rail system and then sent them on their way. The tea really wasn't very good. I'm not sure if that's because tea wasn't meant to be grown here or because the Portuguese have never been able to manage it properly, but the safest bet is probably to blame the two Chinese tea masters who clearly weren't very masterful at all.
I wore this military for the duration of our trip, and it was great.

So... anyway. That's it. That was the trip. At least in terms of the food I ate and the food I avoided. It was pretty good. I would recommend it if you can find a $300 return ticket.

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