From Codfish to Cozido
For sixteen days, Christian and I travelled through Portugal trying all the local foods our appetites could handle. I anticipated the fresh seafood dishes and wines for which Portugal is well-known, eagerly. As a lover of both seafood and red wine, my residence in the landlocked, Midwestern state of Indiana does me no favors – these foods are not our forte. From codfish to cozido, I arrived in the Azores with a long list of foods on my must-try list so I wouldn’t miss a thing. As the photos might suggest, we ate our fill of these classics and so many more. I left Portugal with some new favorite dishes, a few restaurant recommendations, and a deep appreciation of the Portuguese cuisine that I hope to share with you here.
For the sake of organization, I’ve organized our meals by region. For the sake of brevity, I’m splitting this food diary into three parts. In this first installment, I’ll start where Christian and I began our trip – in the Azores island of Sao Miguel.
Local Foods of the Azores
The Azores is a lesser visited archipelago of nine islands – the largest and most accessible is Sao Miguel. It’s best reached by a two-hour flight, though during warmer months you may be able to get there by a lengthy boat ride. The island has a few foods that you can’t miss including cozido, Azores beef, fresh island cheese, and wine made of grapes grown on the island of Pico.
For right now, suffice it to generalize that Azorean food tends to be rich, hearty, and simpler than mainland Portuguese cuisine, emphasizing the natural flavors of the ingredients. This stems from the young island’s history and residents. The Azores Islands are believed to be inhabited around the fifteenth century. The first inhabitants (primarily Portuguese with a smattering of Dutch settlers) were mostly poor fisherman and farmers. The cuisine they developed came from a culture of hard working people, hungry for an affordable, filling meal. Many settlers were illiterate and did not write down their recipes for generations.
The result is a cuisine that is surprisingly different from mainland Portugal, for all the overlap in ingredients. To test this, order kale soup on the island versus in mainland Portugal. You might find that Azorean kale soup is chunkier, with actual pieces of kale and chopped potatoes. On the mainland, this kale soup takes more of a blended form with leafy kale there as garnish more than substance. Of course, I am generalizing based on my limited experience on vacation. However, my research (a few tv shows and a bit of reading) leads me to believe the experts agree with me. I’ll let you decide for yourself.
On our first day in the Azores, we stopped for a snack at Restaurant Ramires, a restaurant on the water in Ponta Delgado. Christian and I planned to get dinner in a few hours after more sightseeing, so we tried to order just enough food to hold us over. Unsuccessful, (or maybe TOO successful) we gorged ourselves on fresh island cheese and bread, piri-piri chicken, fresh pineapple, and red wine. Having eaten too much to need another meal, we walked around for a while and eventually opted for gelato instead.
We tried a lot of different regional cheeses on this trip, which you can usually get alongside a basket of bread for 1-2 euros. This one was a great texture, similar to parmesan, that was delicious paired with the fruit jam included. The cheese on the islands is high quality and very fresh – the beefy cows speckling the island pastures are as much for dairy as meat. Each restaurant seemed to have their own style, so if you’re a cheese-lover, I’d opt for the bread and cheese in as many places as it is offered.
We each ordered a half order of the piri-piri chicken, which they brought out to us in one combined dish. We were thankful we didn’t opt for the full size as there was no way we each could eat a whole portion! The simple dish of seasoned chicken cooked in a bit of olive oil was one of the best baked chicken dishes I’ve ever eaten. They served this piri-piri chicken on the bone so it was full of flavor. I did not sample the dish on the mainland so I can’t tell you how it compares, but my suspicion is that it’d be delicious there too.
Dessert in the Azores and in the rest of Portugal was often a simple fruit dish of the freshest pineapple – one of my favorite fruits. After a hearty and savory meal (typical for most of the dishes we tried in Portugal) the pineapple was a perfect portion and a refreshing finish. Grown locally in the Azores, the pineapple was far higher quality than the imported pineapples I’ve grown used to in Indiana.
On our second day, we ate breakfast at the Nook Hostel which offered the basics: cereals, toast, jams, and fruit. And of course, coffee. I am a daily coffee drinker and fortunately for me, so are the Portuguese! Nearly every hostel served coffee, but more specifically espresso. You could purchased one at any restaurant or café for around a single euro.
Later, after an incredible hike on the east side of Sao Miguel island, we set off for our second meal of the day at restaurant near an old flour mill and some waterfalls. Upon arriving, we were incredibly hungry and disappointed the cafe there was only serving coffees and pastries. The area around the diner, Parque Natural da Ribiera dos Caldeiroes, was beautiful and but I was too hungry to explore. We ordered an espresso and a few pastries to hold us over and met an English couple who recommended a visit to TukaTula for lunch. The couple sheepishly revealed they’d frequented the restaurant several times in their week-long vacation. Christian and I set off immediately after ending our chat with the pair, convinced and eager to give TukaTula a try.
I am happy to report the couple did not lead us astray! This beachside restaurant was situated with ocean-side views and outdoor seating that was near full capacity our entire visit. Tall cliffs lined the back edge of the beach, a few hundred feet from the shoreline. A mysterious misty cloud shrouded the landscape in the distance. We had the perfect vantage point to observe the local Portuguese children surfing in the freezing waters, the blue waves crashing over large rocks down the end of the beach. We ordered TukaTula’s blood-sausage and pineapple, and a smoked-salmon salad to start. For drinks we opted for gin and tonics, wanting to try the local Azorean gin.
The blood sausage wasn’t my favorite but the flavor paired really well with the pineapple and I still quite enjoyed it. The salmon salad, however, was delicious. The salad probably had a pound of salmon, which we happily discovered – smoked-salmon salad in Indiana often means a few slices of fish on a ton of veggies. We worried we’d ordered too much food when our server brought our our salad, but our next dishes were so yummy we cleaned those plates too.
For the main dishes, we ordered an entrée of limpets (sea snails) and a steak. We were anxious to try both the fresh seafood and beef from the local Azorean cows. (Both were delicious. Are you noticing a theme here?) They served the mussels in a garlic butter sauce with fresh lemon for extra flavor as desired. After making sure we pried every single mussel from its shell, we soaked up the sauce with the bread they served alongside as we didn’t want to waste a drop. We ordered so much food that our waiter was laughing at us by the time we asked for espressos to finish off the meal.
The restaurant served this simply garnished, with a lemon wedge and one slice of roasted red pepper. A note about Azores beef: Azorean farmers raise their cows grass-fed, and let them meander through enormous green pastures mostly undisturbed. This environment creates high-quality, beef full of flavor that is pretty easy to turn into a tasty meal, provided you don’t go overboard with the toppings. It does not surprise me that TukaTula did a great job with this dish. That being said, not every restaurant we encountered did so well. (More on that soon.)
We finished our meal with espressos and made out with all this for around $50 euros. After our extravagant meal, we walked across the restaurant and directly onto the beach where we tried to burn off a few of the calories we’d just consumed. One of the best meals we had in the Azores, you can’t beat the food, prices, and location TukaTula offers. The island takes around an hour to cross at its furthest points, so I recommend everyone who stops through Sao Miguel add this to their dining itinerary.
Restaurante da Associacao Agricola
On our third day, we went for lunch at one of the highest-rated steak restaurants on the island: Restaurante da Associacao Agricola. Although the place was pretty slow, the service was terrible and the food was subpar for a place specializing in steak. However, Azores beef is a must try for meat-eaters when you’re in the islands for aforementioned reasons so it’s worth discussing anyway.
Let me take a minute to express my personal opinions on what is apparently a typical Portuguese steak dressing: ketchup and an over-easy egg. WHY? What reason does one have for taking a delicious cut of high-quality steak and ruining it with an egg and ketchup, one of the worst condiments to exist? It’s an insult to the steak, in my personal opinion. I’m not a huge fan of eggs either, so I can’t get behind this dish. Restaurante da Associacao Agricola offered this as one of their most popular options, so maybe that was a sign of things to come for me. But regardless, now that that’s out of the way…
Declining the restaurant dish of steak with egg and ketchup, Christian and I opted for tenderloins with different toppings. All the steaks were served in a big bed of sauce – mine being mustard, and Christian’s being a gravy with three types of peppers. Apparently these peppers are local, but we imagined something more along the lines of what we got at TukaTula rather than peppercorns.
Perhaps we had an unusually bad experience, but for a steak restaurant the steak was sorely disappointing and we vowed to revisit TukaTula before we ever went back to this place. I’m only including this restaurant to suggest you do the same. There are a lot of great steak places in the Azores, and despite the high reviews on TripAdvisor (maybe that was our mistake), we did not find this to be one of them.
Restaurante Big 21
After a disappointing lunch, we crossed our fingers for a better dinner and went to a restaurant in Ponta Delgada called Restaurante Big 21. They gave us one of the best dinners of our entire trip and completely redeemed our day of dining.
We sat in a cozy restaurant and a large man who looked 100% Portuguese, and seemed 100% thrilled to be working there took our order. He was tall with dark hair, a full beard, and the friendliest smile as he talked about the menu options. We took his recommendations on our wine and entrees, and enjoyed some of the best seafood we could have asked for.
We started with an octopus salad to share which they served in a thematic tin dish I really appreciated. It was fresh, flavorful, and light which took the edge off our appetites without leaving us feeling too full for the main course.
Christian ordered a tuna steak, which we could tell was high quality the second he cut into it. Coated in sesame seeds, and served with some veggies, we loved each beautiful bite. I ordered seafood linguine nero – the nero coming from squid ink which colors the pasta. The restaurant served the dish with shrimp and mussels, perfectly seasoned with just the right amount of garlic. I ate until I couldn’t take another bite, regretting that we didn’t have more time to try the entire menu.
One thing I loved about this restaurant was that they offered a limited number of dishes. We had maybe 10 entrees to choose from, making our selection easier and giving us confidence every dish would be quality. We enjoyed our meal with white Pico wine, per the recommendation of our server. Afterward, we spent the next several days talking about how lucky we were to have dined at Restaurante Big 21.
Before we left for Portugal, Christian and I watched Anthony Bourdain’s episode on the Azores and learned about cozido. Cozido is a dish specific to the Azores, cooked in thermal springs which steam huge pots of proteins and veggies. Azores often cook the dish with little or no seasoning, to emphasize the natural flavors of the meats, greens, and potatoes. Because it takes such effort to cook cozido, it can sometimes be difficult to find a place that serves it.
After a stop by the Poca Da Dona Beija hot springs (an entire adventure in itself), we received a recommendation of three restaurants that serve the famous cozido. We arrived at the first place on our list and the staff informed us they weren’t serving cozido that day. We went across the street to Tony’s Restaurant, and saw on the menu that ordering cozido required a reservation. The universe was with us though, thankfully we were able to order cozido for two people without said reservation.
The menu listed what we ordered as appropriate for two. In reality we received pounds of beef, pork, and chicken on a platter with cabbage, potatoes, and carrots. The pork was my favorite – rich and flavorful with every bite – while Christian favored the cabbage and blood sausage. The serving was way more (delicious) food than any two people can really eat in one sitting. We only ate a few vegetables in our first days, as became the case throughout our trip. We eat a lot of veggies at home, so the potatoes and carrots were as appetizing as the meats.
I definitely recommend this classic dish to anyone stopping by the Azores. Be aware that it cozido may be harder to come by in the busy season. If it’s something you have your heart set on trying, consider making a reservation at one of the restaurants serving the dish before you arrive. Also consider bringing your own Tupperware as you’ll likely have leftovers and won’t want to waste them.
Restaurante Lagoa Azul
On our last morning, we traveled to the west side of the island to the popular tourist site, Sete Cidades. This town rests inside an enormous volcanic crater, with green walls rising up all around. It’s a peaceful place, which felt uncrowded even though it was one of the more touristic places to visit. In our research we found the Restaurante Lagoa Azul which was serving a lunch buffet. When we walked up, we found a small line of people anxious to find seats at the crowded restaurant. The few servers were running around like mad, taking drink and dessert orders, clearing plates, and setting tables. The staff worked so efficiently that I spent a lot of time watching them run the restaurant. I didn’t take any photos because I was not ready to add to the chaos, but recommend this restaurant one hundred percent.
The buffet offered some eight seafood and eight additional dishes to sample. Options included cod, octopus, fried fish, baked fish, chicken, salad, and a lot of things I could not confirm. I can’t do it justice but I can confirm locals and tourists all went back for seconds. The diner wasn’t extraordinarily fancy but was the sort of place where you just knew you made the right call in coming inside. Brace yourself for a little wait but rest assured it’s well worth it.
So there you have it. Five places you should try if you’re staying in Sao Miguel, and one I’d advise you skip. I think we ordered some of the best dishes these places offered. That said, I also think you can’t go wrong with most foods served on this beautiful island. If you’ve been to the Azores before, let me know what else you think should be on this list.
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