We parked at a lookout above the Logoa das Furnas in the Azores islands and looked down from the mountain to the volcanic lake below. Steam rose out of the earth in numerous places on the shore and we could see the red-tiled roofs on the town of Furnas below. Our food history adventure that day was to drive down to the lake to watch our lunch being cooked in the hot sand of the lakeside geothermal springs and then enjoy the results – to taste a bit of Azorean food history.
Many restaurants in Furnas carry on the tradition of serving a one-pot meal called Cozido nas Caldeiras (Caldera Stew). When we arrived at the park where the calderas were being cooked, we walked on the boardwalk above steaming, bubbling mud and water pools. We found the spot with mounds of sand and signs atop, where each restaurant and some families had placed their pots and began to look for the one that read Restaurant Banhos Ferreos.
We learned that the large metal pots were put into the ground between 4 and 6 am. They were then covered with a mound of sand and cooked for the next eight hours until 12:30 pm. The pots were heavy and needed two men to pull them from the earth with hooks and haul them to the restaurant trucks to be delivered in time for the noon-day meals.
The food contained in the pot would feed many diners. We drove behind the truck of our chosen restaurant away from the lake through the streets of Furnas to the Restaurant Banhos Ferreos and I followed the men carrying the pot right into the kitchen. Two women proceeded to untie the cloth that held the pot lid shut, remove the lid, and fold back steaming layers of cloth to reveal the food. Potatoes, carrots, inhame (an African root vegetable also known as taro) and cabbage were placed on the bottom with water. Then there were layers of beef, chicken, pork, pork sausage and blood sausage wrapped in tin foil, with kale atop all. Nothing fancy, just a boiled dinner. I remembered the Jiggs Dinners of Newfoundland and thought of all the one pot dinners of other cultures.
Our order of two meals was served on one platter with a sampling of each food. As always it came with a big basket of fresh (from the bakery) bread, and cheese from the Azores. We added local red wine and enjoyed a feast. We sat in a large room that was tiled with historical scenes and later learned that this room once housed a soaking pool using the water from the hot springs. It was now repurposed as a dining room.
The surprise in that boiled dinner was an exceptional taste that the earth’s steam gave the meal. I thought about all the hands that made the meal and the freshness of the food. I thought of the farmers who cared for the cows that grazed on salty grass by the ocean; those that planted and harvested the potatoes and the other vegetables. I thought of the kitchen staff that placed all the food and took the pots in the dark to be lowered into the steaming earth at 4 am. There was so much work, so much taste and so much history in this dish.
Sao Miguel is one of nine Portuguese islands known as the Azores, that resulted from volcanic eruptions in one of the earth’s faults in the Atlantic Ocean. The islands are located 800 kilometres from Lisbon, Portugal and 2,400 kilometres from North America. In the Azores, a moderate climate year round makes excellent growing conditions on the fertile islands. There was once a thriving orange growing business on the islands. We saw historic homes with small square structures atop the roofs where men were posted to watch from the tower for the European sailing ships to appear on the horizon. They would then alert the farmers to pick the oranges that had to be boxed perfectly and quickly to survive the long journeys back to the continent. The islands no longer export oranges but pineapples are grown on the island, raised in glass greenhouses. Small and sweet, they are still a popular fruit.
In the Azores a unique cuisine is found that blends with Portuguese influences but enjoys a separate identity. The rustic food that has been served back in time is still enjoyed and food traditions continue.
The restaurants of Furnas that continue to cook food under the earth help preserve those traditions.
To learn more about Restaurant Banhos Ferreos http://www.restaurantbanhosferreos.com
Related former articles Bread from the Centre of the Earth March 2018
Dining Mumu Style in Papua New Guinea