The Azores: most definitely holiday material
On my very first trip to the Azores I knew I’d be back. Both for more wine adventures and for holidays. I spent 4 days on wine travels on Sao Miguel, Pico and Terceira earlier this month. The day after I got back I booked flights for a holiday in the Azores next year. So I think you get the message. This Atlantic archipelago is a very special place.
I’ll be writing a post about the staggering renaissance of Pico’s vineyards which has taken place since my first trip in 2014. Meanwhile, the revolution in wine quality has gathered impetus with new developments on both player and portfolio front. There is a confidence and optimism for which I reckon my hosts, Azores Wine Company (AWC), can take much credit.
But for now, following on my feast for eyes and belly post of 2014, I’ll share with you more mouthwatering pictures of the food and wine culture in the Azores – mostly new discoveries, though Pico’s Ancoradouro won my heart all over again with its clear-eyed focus on raw ingredients and traditional fayre – fruits of the sea. As if that recommendation was not enough, the owners have now opened a wine bar/wine store over the road too.
My stay kicked off at one of the island’s two new five star hotels, Azor in Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel. It opened this summer. You’d never guess it. This is a sophisticated city slicker operation with very contemporary styling.
Check out the lobby with its oenomatic machines and cheese bar. Up top, on this stunning roof terrace with pool, you’ll find the bar bar overlooking the harbour.
But there’s substance not just style when it comes both to comfort (the rooms) and the cooking at À Terra restuarant, which puts a contemporary spin on local ingredients. I love love loved the lapas – limpits – with their punchy taste of the sea.
I’m still getting my head around the barnacles. To be fair, my extraction method still sucks! Ah well, practice makes perfect.
Early the next morning (6am breakfast no problem), I headed for the airport to catch a flight to Terceira, where Vinho Verde guru Anselmo Mendes is once again putting his name to the wines of the Biscoitos Co-operative. More on that in another post.
Fortunately, in terms of timing if not wine production, Biscoitos is tiny with little more than 20ha of vineyard. So it was a super quick visit – back at the airport with a two hour turnaround. Destination Pico, the main wine producing island in the Azores and the seat of this vineyard renaissance and wine revolution.
Winemaker Antonio Macanita met me and his fellow AWC founder, Filipe Rocha off the plane. Rocha is the Director of the Azores School of Hospitality and Tourism, so how glad was I that he had arranged my itinerary. Over my first tasting of AWC wines, we lunched at Casa Âncora restaurant in Sao Roque do Pico. Like Azor hotel, it opened this summer – thanks to the introduction of budget flights last year, tourism is on a roll.
Long picture windows give you a great view of the harbour. As you might expect, the young Russian couple who own it and the chef whom they brought with them have a different take to your average local restaurant.
It paid off in some dishes, though I found the strawberry in the gazpacho a little too sweet for my palate. However a fish chowder and perfectly cooked barracuda were very good.
The star of the show was this zesty pudding. To my mind it perfectly reflected what the Azores is about (and I suppose here I am thinking about wine!) Namely freshness and texture.
Like the prow of a boat, my rustic but very solid, traditional stone home for the night gets battered in storms. Fortunately, during my stay at Casa do Garajau, I was lulled to sleep by the Atlantic and awoke to its hypnotic rhythm. A great spot to take in the majesty of this seething ocean.
During the evening I caught up with local wine producers at Adega A Buraca in Santo António São Roque do Pico. It is currently the only winery which is open for daily visits. Until last year (when Macanita made their first dry white), radiologist, owner and winemaker Leonardo Silva focused on licoroso wines and a mind boggling array of aguardente/eaux de vie which put me in my of a scene from It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet. The fig aguardente is super intense. Glad it was my nightcap!
The very traditional Adega is home to a winery museum which, with the cellar door, is well worth a visit. I didn’t visit the rooms but Silva and his daughter Maria, who is in charge of the accommodation, are wonderfully hospitable. I am sure you’d have a memorable stay.
The following morning, after a visit to one of AWC’s mind-boggling vineyard renovation projects, we headed to Madalena for an AWC vertical. I am thrilled to say it utterly endorsed my early excitement about Macanita’s Azores wines. The venue was Ancoradouro’s new wine bar, Atlantico Winehouse.
As you can see, it’s a great spot for a swim. And for fish – check out this street scene – boats and the mural (top) in Madalena.
After the tasting we hot-footed it over the road for a late lunch on the terrace at Ancoradouro. It’s a beautiful spot overlooking the harbour. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Portugal has the best fish and rice dishes I’ve encountered. The octopus rice here was no exception. Piping hot, with very tender octopus. Irresistible.
After lunch, it was time to go south to São Mateus to visit another AWC vineyard renovation in progress, then co-founder Paulo Machado’s vineyard and winery. Pending the building of an ambitious new winery, it is where AWC wines are currently made. Machado’s winery has tripled in size in as many years!
Overnight at Casa dos Botes, a strikingly contemporary conversion of an old stone whale boathouse, the ocean once again lulled me into a deep sleep. I took a quick stroll on the cliff to overlook Galeo Bay, then down to the harbour where the anglers had long taken up residence. Then it was back to the airport and back to Sao Miguel after another vineyard visit.
Rocha and I made a pit stop at Anfiteatro, which is the restaurant of the School of Tourism & Hospitality. Overlooking Ponta Delgada harbour, I’d enjoyed a succession of dinners there on my previous visit, each hosted by different international chefs.
This time it was the turn of the resident chef, a teacher at the school, who had no shortage of technique.
A very contemporary tasting menu impressed with its presentation, proportion, balance and flavour intensity. Fish was the star of the show.
And despite this witty dessert – Azorean cake – I left feeling satisfied but not in the least full after five courses.
(In case you are wondering about the cake, you “mix” it yourself – butter icecream, rice pudding milk (in the jug), spherified melon for the egg yolk, marshmallow sugar lumps and almond flour).
On my last visit, much to my regret, I ducked a trip to Furnas lake and hot springs. The springs are quite a sight. Quite a sound and smell too – bubbling/gushing springs and spurts of hot water, with plumes of sulphurous smoke. Handy for slow cooking cozida, hence the holes with lids.
I stayed at the Azores’ first hotel, the four star Terra Nostre Garden Hotel. The gardens (which have an outdoor thermal pool) are stunning.
As for the accommodation, this Art Deco spa hotel has a serene air. It was recently refurbished and the quality of fixtures and fittings is sumptuous.
Service at dinner harks back to the 1930s. It’s formal, but not stiff. The food is very good but, for wine nuts, this is the place to go nuts. It was voted the island’s best and, save for Champagne, is dedicated to Portugal.
As you’d expect, Portugal’s iconic wines are well represented. There is a good library of Azores wines too. Perhaps the longest you’ll find anywhere, so the list has appeal for geeks like me too.
But another feature really gets the heart thumping. During the refurbishment of this hotel and a sister hotel, a stash of modest mature bottles was discovered. Of the three reds I tasted, Caves Velhas Tinto (Bairrada) and Jose Maria Fonseca Camarate, both from 1980. were great delights. (And a Quinta do Cardo Siria 2005 reaffirmed the very high potential of this white grape in Beira Interior – glad I chose a vintage of this wine for My 50 Great Portuguese Wines 2010).
The former, still deep in hue, had terrific dark cherry fruit still with Bairrada’s/Baga’s tell tale iodine and fresh acidity to the finish.
It proved a heavenly match with Prawn raviolo and a dark, very reduced wild mushroom sauce.
Lighter, very elegant, the Camarate similarly retained great fruit – lovely purity – with a flash of green. Here part of its elegance. A good high to end on.