Lost in the Atlantic: The Azores and Its Hearty Food

Lost in the Atlantic

I get all kinds of responses when I tell people where my family’s 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.”

Most 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 Azores — São Miguel, Faial, São Jorge and six other islands — are happily marooned in the middle of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, so too is our distinctive cuisine.

But 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 açordas — brothy soups filled with swollen chunks of crusty homemade bread — were sometimes all there was to fill bellies.

Consequently, owning a café or pastelarias (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.

Portuguese Carne Assada by David Leite

Those 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.

Despite such obstacles, Azorean food has managed to thrive — and even resist being overtaken by the Mediterranean-infused cuisine of mainland Portugal.

“Our 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.”

For tiny islands, the archipelago’s foods are remarkably regionalized, differing by island, town and evenvizinhança, or neighborhood. According 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 peppers. Manuel 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.

Sopa 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.” Variations include the addition of red beans, ham hocks or beef shanks and a sizable portion of chouriço— not the miserly single slice of the mainland version.

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 essential.

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 forbacalhau — one for each day of the year.

Portuguese Coconut Cups by David LeitePork, on the other hand, may seem like an unusual staple on sleepy volcanic islands sequestered away at sea. But to most Azoreans, cattle was more desirable for its dairy production than for its beef. 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 matança 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 dancing.

The following days are devoted to butchering the pig to make the famous linguiça and chouriçosausages, 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 dinner) and soups.

Cod and pork may be characteristic of our cuisine, but what really defines it are the desserts — eggy and 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.

While 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).

In 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 feel — regardless of which secluded, beautiful corner of Atlantis he lives on.

David Leite's signature

Recipes
Portuguese Salt Cod and Potato CasseroleBacalhau à Gomes de Sá
Portuguese Cream Custard TartsPastéis de Nata

Comments
Comments
  1. Joyce Amaral says:

    Oh my God! Am I glad I couldn’t sleep! As you may be able to tell by my surname, I am also of Azorean descent. The article was excellent! It was almost word-for-word what I’ve been trying to convey to my friends of all ancestries for many years! I am soooo happy I found this site; which I will frequent often! And I’m getting the book, too!!!! (I am from Fall River, Mass—a HUGE Azorean community since my great-grandparents arrived in this country.) Thank you again for making my day!

    • David Leite says:

      Joyce, I’m so happy the post spoke to you. That article means a lot to me, as it was one of the very first I wrote. I, too, am from Fall River, and we later crossed the river to Swansea, where my family still lives.

      BTW, the cookbook has a lot of Azorean dishes I, and I’m sure you, grew up enjoying.

      • Joyce Amaral says:

        Wow! What a small world! Now, I am even MORE proud to be from Fall River!!(Several of my family members live across the bridge now, as well as being scattered around that area and Rhode Island.) I just want you to know that I printed the article! You can’t imagine what it did for me! My ex-husband is from the mainland. My daughter is fifth generation full-blooded Portuguese in this country. She knows about the similarities and differences of BOTH cuisines, and she is definitely a Fall River girl at heart! As we live in CT now, we still go every couple of months to get our chourico, salted cod, Portuguese olive oil, and spices. Do you still live in the area, or you get back there to visit?
        I wish you much success with the book… I am ordering an autographed copy, of course!! And please… keep posting those GREAT recipes from the Azores!

        Joyce Amaral

        • David Leite says:

          Alzira, I live in Litchfield country. And, yes, you can find the book online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc..

      • Marilyn says:

        Does your cookbook have a recipie for making homemade linguica? My nephew is eager to make some.

        • David Leite says:

          Marilyn, alas, it doesn’t. But I believe you can find one in Ana Ortins’ Portuguese Homestyle Cooking.

    • lisa says:

      Does anyone have the recipe for the bolo you eat with sardinhas assadas, it it flat like a pancake? Please send to the email dawsons@northrock.bm.

      • David Leite says:

        Lisa, do you mean bolo de caco, the round, flat breads from Madeira?

        • Karen says:

          I need this recipe please let me know if you have it, my mom use to make it and she just passed away. Thanks.

        • Jose Manuel Silveira says:

          I think you’re talking about bolo do tijolo. These are flat breads made on a tijolo cast iron-like round “griddle” over firewood. It’s now made on top of regular stoves. My grandmother used to make this bread often in Faial. I think it may have originated more on the island of Pico. The women of Pico would come daily to Faial and bring this bread with them to sell in the mercado (market), along with grapes, figs and all the great items Pico was know for. My mother has made it at times here in the states, but it’s never quite the same. But, I can see where the bolo do tijolo would be great with sardinhas assadas nas brasas. Delicious! I found a receipe online that you may want to check out.

          • David Leite says:

            Jose, thanks for the insight. Much appreciated by all.

            • Alzira Pereira says:

              Hi OMG now I have a craving for bolo do tijolo. Yes, being from Faial it was always interesting to see the ladies with all their head gear (baskets upon baskets) on top of their heads. I loved the bolo do tijolos. I am making Portuguese sweetbread as we speak so I will settle for that. I don’t think it’s the Portuguese pancakes that David might be referring to. I do think it is what Joseph was talking about. They are thin and I think made with flour and corn meal??? Gosh, love the Azorean Food…especially bifannas. I think our island has the best sweet bread, too. Maybe I am just bias? Anyway, David, I will have to check out the book. Great article and I live in Connecticut now but for many years lived in Swansea and loved it.

              • Antonio Cardoso says:

                Bolo do tijolo was also known as bolo do Pico. Fantastic with any type of fish, particularly sardines or any “petisco.” My parents recently retired and went back to Faial. My mother use to cook bolo do Pico quite often…I miss it. Other dishes I miss include polvo guisado com vinho tinto, bife de advindalhos, soupa de feijão, caldo verde, and “soupa de couves. Having lived over 30 years in California, what I miss most from the first 18 years of living in Faial and Pico is the food.

                • David Leite says:

                  Thanks, António. It sounds wonderful. I know how hard it is to miss foods from your childhood or from a foreign place. There are some dishes my maternal grandmother used to make that no one makes now, and there’s an ache inside when I think about it.

    • Marilyn says:

      GREAT article, thanks to my son Christopher Piggott for giving me this site!! Azorean food is such hearty, wonderful food, the original SOUL FOOD IMO! I, like Joyce Amaral, am from Fall River, MA, and my grandfather came here from Riberia Grande in 1897. If you are new to this type of food TRY IT, you will love it!!

  2. Kathie says:

    I am so excited to be even a tad closer to finding the information I need to make a Portuguese dinner for my dear man, David. He is from Cape Cod and is also from a family originating on the Azores. He lived near Provincetown, and he has a love for a dish he calls Porco Pão or something of that nature. Do you have any ideas on how to track down the recipe? I have been searching the internet and to no avail. Thanks so much for your work and your experiences.

    • David Leite says:

      Kathie, I think I know what David is referring to. (Of course, I could be off, because so many dishes have multiple names.) In my book I have a recipe for Spicy Azorean Garlic-Roasted Pork. If you make that recipe (cutting the pork into cubes instead of chunks), split a crusty roll, and fill it with the pork…I have a feeling David will be quite pleased.

  3. Jessica Soares says:

    Wow! What a treasure to find. I grew up in Swansea but now live in the West. Needless to say, not much for Portuguese cuisine here. THANKS! I will definitely be a frequenter of this site.

  4. Ed Cordeiro says:

    Hello. I too am fascinated by this wonderful find! I was born in Sao Miguel and we came to the west coast of Canada, where we live in a small community that began in the mid 50′s. Our town was flocked by Azorean men looking for stable, well paying jobs, and now 60 years later, even though all the old people are gone, there is still a major descendant influence of Azoreans. I will always be proud of my heritage, and as you can tell by my last name i will always be an Azorean.

    • David Leite says:

      Ed, thanks for writing. Your family’s story is very much like mine. We settled on the East Coast, in Massachusetts, where a lot of Azorean men worked in the fishing industry and Azorean women worked in the fabric mills.

  5. David Leite says:

    Hi, simply Maria. My book is titled “The New Portuguese Table.” It’s all authentic, but a goodly portion of it is contemporary dishes I found in homes, restaurants, hotels, and such in Portugal today. So while you do have plenty of classics, you also have new dishes. I wouldn’t say Americanized, but contemporized by cooks whom I met while living in Portugal.

  6. Hi David. We found your wonderful website while doing research for next winter’s stay in Sao Miguel, Ponta Delgada. We’re seeking tips on bakeries, churrasqueirias, eating places, etc., walking distance from our rental apartment, which is right downtown near the marina. We’ll be posting a new travelogue on TheTravelzine.

  7. elizabeth rendero says:

    Grew up in CT and went to Fall River/New Bedford a couple of times a year to stock up on Portuguese items. Have lived in western SC for several years, There was a market in Fall River (Chaves?) that had marinated pork chunks that you then would cook stovetop or about an hour. I recall that this was the state of the pork before it was made into chourica. It had garlic and paprika and other spices. It cooked up kind of reddish from the paprika. Does anyone know what this is called and how can I make the marinade down here in SC or where I can order some to be shipped? Muito Obrigado….

    • David Leite says:

      Elizabeth, I was born in Fall River, MA, and lived not to far from Chaves. The mixture you’re talking about us what they use to make chouriço and linguiça. You can make the marinade, a good approximation from a recipe in my book. You’ll find it here. You can also try to locate Massa de Pimenta, a slight spicy, salty sauce that’s used–along with some wine, garlic, paprika, salt, and pepper–to make the mix you’re referring to.

    • Pam says:

      It is linguica and it is delicious, they carried it for a period of time here in Virginia, but failed to market it, people do not realize it is a very tasty and versatile meat! I can be fried, baked, broiled, boiled, more tasty and similar to kielbasa. They can ship it direct to your home Amarals and Gaspars. There may be more, but these are the two companies that were there when I lived there.

      • Joyce Amaral says:

        Joyce Amaral here again! Gaspar’s not too good. Amaral’s (well, they’re relatives, third or fourth counsins on my dad’s mother’s side). Amaral’s has good chourico and linguica. The best that I’ve found of late, though, is Chaves Market. Excellent taste, and not “ground” – still made with pork chunks- like the way it should be- and they do ship. Their phone number is 508-672-7821. Let me know how you make out.

  8. Gabby Warren says:

    This was a real treat to read. It brought back many childhood memories! My mom, Deolinda, was born in Sao Miguel. My dad, Dalberto, my sister and I were born in Terceira. We came to this country when I was 16. Now in my mid 50′s, I’m always trying to find and learn more about the culture. Unfortunately where I live there aren’t Portuguese bakeries, nor restaurants. I only know of one in Seattle, so when I go visit my parents in CA it is so fun to go to the bakeries. Thank you for the article and recipes.

    • David Leite says:

      Gabby, my pleasure. It’s always important to hold on to that connection to your heritage, even though it can be tough these days.

  9. Jamie Jones says:

    I was born in New Bedford, Mass. My Mom’s parents were from Sao Miguel in the Azores and came to New Bedford as small children. I have a few relatives still in the New Bedford area. Unfortunately, my grandparents and my Mom have passed away and with them the recipes and traditions of my ancestory. Every year, I order linguicia and other items from companies online such as Gaspar’s Sausage. I’m planning on purchasing your book because my dream vacation is to travel to the Azores and to learn about my ancestory. Thank you.

  10. Ana Cristina Silveira says:

    I am so glad I came across this site. I was born on the beautiful island of Terceira. My family moved to New Jersey when I was 7. I realized I had been taking everything for granted when my mom passed away 2 years ago. My mom was a great cook but I never took the time to write down the recipes, so thank you for your book! It will certainly fill the void.

  11. Debbie says:

    I am of Portuguese decent. I am half Portuguese, my grandmother was from the island of Terceira. My mom is not Portuguese but learned to cook from my grandma Trovao. She died 6 years ago and all her recipes have disappeared. I am looking for a recipe for al carte (I apoligize for the spelling). My husband and I love to cook this style. We are from California and have some sources for recipes, but would love some others.

  12. Gloria Paiva-Martin says:

    My mom just passed away, and I am so upset that I never learned how to make her arroz doce. She is from São Miguel, and I know the ingredients, which included egg yolks, but it was her technique that really made it so rich and thick. Do you have a recipe for this rice pudding? I have noticed variations on different websites–some w/o egg, some adding hot milk separately instead of initially with the water, etc.

    Loved this article!

    • David Leite says:

      Gloria, so glad you enjoyed the article. I’m sorry about your mom passing. It’s so tough when a parent dies. I have a recipe for arroz doce in my cookbook, The New Portuguese Table. If you don’t have it, you can buy it on this site or take it out of the library. I dont know how it stacks up to your mom’s, but it’s the closest I got to my avó’s version. Let me know how it turns out!

  13. Daniel Evangelho says:

    After giving sweet bread another try today (it was just fair…too crusty and a little too dense) I’ve been searching the internet and just about every recipe is a little different! Even the recipes from each side of my family (the Evangelhos from Terceira and the Martinhos from Faial) are different. Is there a recipe in your book that is considered the “genuine” article?

    • David Leite says:

      Daniel, you have stumbled upon the truth in cooking: there is no genuine article, only what you like. The recipe in my book is based upon my grandmother’s. It’s got a somewhat moist interior with a lacquered-looking thin crust. The best thing you can do is decide the kind of sweet bread you like and alter a favorite recipe until it’s what you deem authentic.

  14. Sylvia Viera says:

    This was so much fun to read. My Mother was from Faial, Father from San Miguel. I was born in N. Dartmouth, Mass. Right near New Bedford. Fortunately, I paid attention to the recipes that I really loved and make vinha d’alhos with pork chops, kale soup, and a chicken dish I’ve never seen anywhere. It’s cooked in wine, cumin, celery, onions…and is awesome. The chicken is dredged in flour, cumin, paprika and garlic powder, then fried till brown. Ever heard of this?

    • David Leite says:

      Hi, Sylvia. The dish sounds fantastic. I can’t say I’ve ever heard of it, but it’s not uncommon for families to use familiar ingredients to make new dishes–especially if the cook is an immigrant from the Old Country. Just look what the Portuguese did with shellfish–stuffed quahogs. Something that is completely unknown in the Portuguese repertoire back in Portugal, but is nonetheless delicious.

  15. Stone says:

    Hi, was stationed on Terceira in the 80′s. Loved a dish (not sure if spelled right) Beefo de Porco. It was pork cutlet with lots of garlic. I have been searching for the recipe for years. I’ve tried to recreate with little success.

    • David Leite says:

      Hello Stone, I think what you’re referring to is something casually referred to as bife de porco. It’s similar to porco com vinho e alhos. That’s chunks of pork marinated in wine and tons of garlic, then cooked. You may hav had a cutlet done the same way. Does that sound at all familiar?

  16. Barbarainnc says:

    Just wondering do you have a recipe for Mealhada Rolls, they are a yeast roll that has cornmeal in them. I can buy them at a store in NC called The Fresh Market in Southern Pines or Greensboro. I’d love to have a recipe to make them. :) :)

  17. Vandee DeCora says:

    My mother’s mother, Mary Azevedo, was born and raised on Pico and her father, Joseph Perry Valine on the island of Faial. They both came to America and settled in Chico, Ca. My fondest memories are of my Nana telling me many stories of her homeland and the Portuguese food she made for me and taught me to cook growing up.

    I am so glad I found this page on the internet. Thank You!

    • David Leite says:

      Vandee, my pleasure. I used to love listening to my avó and avô telling stories of the Old Country. And my dad, too, who lived there until 1957.

  18. Kathleen says:

    Hello I tried the find your book on amazon and was unable to locate it. Is there a specific name that I should be searching?

    Thx

  19. L. Carrilho says:

    Love the article. And it explains why I am having so much trouble trying to prepare Carne de vinha d’alhos. It’s from my grandfather who was from Madera and settled on yet another island, Hawaii. He is no longer with me. I keep trying to prepare the dish, and it never comes out how he prepares it. I would love to be able to accomplish this. Tastes and smells we all know bring back memories. My grandmother is from Lisbon, and I can’t recreate her recipes, either. Especially Malasadas! In my family we lost the language. Both sides were told they were only to speak English, even though my great grandparents could not. I am unclear if it was out of embarrassment or afraid of being ridiculed. Either way it is a shame it was lost for my generation and future. Anyway…I would love to find a recipe that is at least close to my grandfather’s. Any suggestions? I am getting recipes from the mainland and that’s why I’m having so much trouble. My mother had recipes from both sides. She lost them. She’s getting on in age, we want to prepare a dinner for her (and me) to honor our ancestry. I just purchased Rosetta stone, to hopefully bring back what was lost to our families. Thank you.

    • David Leite David Leite says:

      L. Carrilho, I have a recipe for Carne Assada em Vinha d’Alhos in my cookbook, which comes from my family who hail from São Miguel, but it calls for beef. Here’s a recipe from cookbook author Ana Ortins, which uses pork–the more traditional meat in Madeira.

      As far as malassadas, they’re really an Azorean, not a Lisbon, dish. In fact, I have never seen them there. Here is my grandmother’s recipe.

      I hope either or both of this dishes bring you closer to your memories.

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