Terceira, Azores – History of food sharing


Top above is a photo of an Imperio chapel on Terceria and below, a pot of Alcatra 

In the previous post I described a cooking lesson I had taken on  Terceira Island to learn to make a traditional meat dish, Alcatra. I am grateful that I had this experience just a month before the COVID 19 virus changed the world. There is a history of food sharing and taking care of those in need on Terceira that is relevant for us all in this new chapter in history.

Festivals are frequent on the island of Terceira starting around Easter and continuing  throughout the summer and early fall. There is Carnival in February and March, The Holy Ghost Festival April/ May, Sanjoaninas in June and street bullfighting (on a rope) everyday somewhere on the island throughout the summer and into the fall. There seems to be endless festivities for  a small island, 30 kilometres in length and 17 kilometres in width. This is an island with an old soul and rich spirit.

A History of Sharing on Terceira

There are many versions of the traditional stories that are representative of the spirit of charity.

One tale is about Queen Isabel of Aragon who lived in 13th century Portugal.  Many people were starving and Queen Isabel would take a basket of bread and walk outside the castle walls to give the bread to the poor. The King was not tolerant of this charity and caught her leaving the castle one day. He forced her to reveal the bread to the onlookers in the court and as she reached in to bring out the bread, it turned into roses. After that the Queen was able to open the gates of the castle to feed the poor. So goes the legend. These legends are still very much a part of the folklore of  the Azores.

An important part of island culture is the Holy Ghost Festival, also called The Holy Spirit Festival, celebrated in many parts of the world by the Portuguese diaspora.

I have included descriptions of parts of the festival that are relevant to the food traditions and the custom of sharing. Farmers have historically donated beef to the festival. There is a strong tradition of caring for those in need on the Azores.

The Holy Ghost Festival starts after Easter and continues for the next eight weeks. It includes processions, the crowning of a symbolic queen or emperor and religious ceremonies in the Churches and feasts.  A Bodo is an large scale public event held at the eighty-six Imperios (small chapels) around Terceira. All are brightly painted, ornate chapels, used only during the Holy Ghost Festival.  A procession from the church ends at the Imperios and food gifts are left in front of the church. Ornate sugar confections in the shape of birds and other food goods are specially made for  this day. The food is distributed and a portion is given to those in need.

Above photos show Imperios – colourful small chapels used only during  festivals. 

The Função is a private event during the celebration that involves the preparation and sharing of a symbolic meal amongst groups of friends and family. Just as the Thanksgiving dinner in North America most often includes a turkey, the Função serves food that is traditional to this celebration. Holy Ghost Soup (sometimes called Holy Spirit Soup,) is served with bread. Although it is called a soup it is served as pieces of meat on a plate, with a broth used to soak bread cooked with mint leaves. On the island of Terceira Holy Ghost soup is also served with alcatra, a beef dish that includes onions, herbs and red wine and is cooked in a clay pot. Wine and sometimes a sweet rice dessert are added to the feast.

The sharing of food during the Holy Ghost Festival, represents a strong spirit of equality and community sharing that has existed on the islands of the Azores for many centuries and remains strong today.

Our guide for a day long food/history tour Darcio of Sea Adventures, told us of how the island of Terceira pulled together when the American government recently closed an air base on the island. He said that many people were suddenly unemployed, losing their homes and livelihood. Darcio described how the whole island pulled together and built special homes for those who had lost theirs and donated food for those who needed help.

He told me that if you make a friend on Terceira, you make a friend for life. The pride of sharing and maintaining traditional food customs are strong on Terceira.

Darcio – a very skilled guide working for Sea Adventures on Terceira explains the history of the Island. He also talked about the strong spirit of giving and taught us about the food history of Terceira.


My next posts will highlight culinary practices used during difficult times in history, lest we forget that this is not the first. Wars, the Spanish Flu and other times of adversity have rocked the world before the COVID 19, and we can learn lessons from the past.



Alcatra on Terceira

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Antonio Câmara from Pro Island Tours (pictured above with his son), picked up seven enthusiastic students from the lobby of our hotel. We were ready to learn how to cook traditional food from Terceira. He packed us all into his Land Rover and sped across the countryside of Terceira, one of the islands of the Azores.  We wondered where he was taking us, but enjoyed the bumpy ride quietly, until we stopped at our destination. The setting for our cooking course was to be held in a park. A stone shelter with tables and benches looked welcoming amongst the moss covered ground and high trees of the forest that climbed up the mountain behind us.

A large stone open fireplace and wood oven held a raging fire. We were going to prepare a traditional beef dish, Alcatra and bake bread, both to be cooked in the wood fired oven.

“Let’s get started,” said Antonio, right away. This feast would take awhile to put together and cook. He and his son assistant were well prepared with all the ingredients ready on a large round table made from a giant tree stump.

First the Bread

We added the bread ingredients to a large bowl, first mixing the yeast with salt, sugar and a little warm water. Baking powder, olive oil and then the flour were added. Now Antonio did once own a pizza shop, so that explains why he could just “feel” the amounts of each ingredient to be added.

“More,” “more,” “more,” he instructed confidently as the ingredients were added.

It reminded me of how the women of the island would have, and maybe still do cook; measuring by “feeling,” rather than cups. The ingredients were mixed, kneaded and formed into round loaf shapes and put in the bowls to rise. It was a rather damp and chilly day so the bowls were put inside the shelter and covered with a heavy blanket, a rising technique I had never seen.

And Now for the Alcatra

The enthusiastic cooking group from Goderich, and Toronto, Ontario, Canada, holding their clay cooking pots called Alguidar.

Next we would make the Alcatra, a very popular traditional meat dish served on Terceira. Different versions can be made with beans or fish, but can never be made in the same clay pot as the beef version. High quality grass fed beef is readily available on Terceira and using good beef is considered to be important to the success of this dish.

Antonio put a large unglazed clay pot called a alguidar in front of each of us. It looked something like a big clay flower pot with no hole in the bottom. The first time it is used, it must be soaked for two or three days before making the Alcatra, we were instructed. We coated the inside of the pot with pork lard. The importance of using an unglazed pot, he explained, was so the tastes and clay become one. The heat radiates through the clay on all sides of the pot giving an even heat during the cooking process. Traditionally they would put the pot in the wood oven to cook all night, and let the heat die off gradually.

We greased our pots, chopped the onion, and chopped one clove of garlic, (Antonio adds a cube of bouillon,) put it all in the pot and covered with hunks of fatty bacon. We cut and laid large pieces of beef (from a rump roast,) with the boniest pieces on the bottom, filling the clay pot to the top. The pot we used held about 2.5 pounds of beef. Spices added were: 10 whole allspice cloves, 10-12 whole black pepper cloves, a dash of cayenne, and clove leaves. The pot was then filled with red wine right to the top. A little white wine can be added as well. The pot was covered tightly with aluminum foil tucked in around the edge and was ready for the oven. If cooking this in an electric or gas oven, it should be put in a cold oven and allowed to heat gradually.

Walking up into the woods we picked some wild ginger leaves to hold our loaves of bread during the cooking process. Ginger plants are not indigenous to the island and now grow voraciously. What looked like large orange flowers were pods left after the blooms had died. The leaves were large and glossy.

When the bread had risen and it was ready for the final bit of kneading , we finished by rolling it into a circular shape with our hands and made shallow cuts on the top surface. We sprinkled flour on the washed leaves and added the loaves, now ready to place in the oven. (see image above)

Loading the wood oven with our food was a process. The burning embers were pushed to the back of the oven. The temperature needed to be correct. Antonio’s elders taught him to put his hand in the oven after the fire had been blazing for hours. He was taught that if you could say the rosary before having to pull your arm out from the heat, the oven was ready. Antonio just seemed to know by feeling when the oven was ready for loading.

We carried the clay pots to the oven with long metal poles that held the pots – a bit of a balancing challenge. When they were all in place we pulled the loaves of bread on ginger leaves onto a long handled wooden paddle and carried them to the oven, giving a little jerking motion to push the loaf into the oven. We placed the bread closer to the front of the oven as they needed less time to cook.

A cooking student carries her Alcatra to the wood oven

Antonio had cleverly brought a few pre-cooked pots of Alcatra from a previous class to heat in the oven so that when our bread was finished we could enjoy a feast. The Alcatra we put together continued to cook in the oven for a future class to enjoy. Antonio told us that in the past, Alcatra was stored without refrigeration. The fat congealed on the top of the cooked pot, he assured us, and it would keep for months. Not something to try at home, but an interesting bit of history.  It was finally time to taste our results.

We feasted on succulent, tender pieces of beef in a wine and spice sauce that resembled no dish I have ever tasted. The clay in the pot and the grass fed beef must make the taste extra special. Alcatra is traditionally eaten with bread to soak up the juices and we enjoyed our loaves hot from the oven. Antonio added salads and a local liqueur called Grappa making it a perfect Azorean feast. He and his son proudly shared their cooking talent and traditions with our group. We also dined as if we were a family from the island enjoying an outdoor picnic in their beautiful park surrounded by thick, bright green moss and giant ferns.

I headed out that day with my new clay pot under my arm ready to conquer the world with my Alcatra. Life couldn’t have been better and little did we know that in a few weeks a virus would overtake the world.

Thanks to Antonio Câmara and his son for a memorable lesson in cooking in the tradition of the Azores. Their touring company is Pro Island Tour – proislandtour.pt

A few days later we toured the island with another guide and after dining out on another Alcatra dish our guide told us that no one in the world could cook like his grandmother. He went on to add that it was because of the love she put into it.

That was the passion and care I felt from those cooking all of the traditional foods we tasted in the Azores.

My next post will discuss briefly the interesting history of charity and sharing of Alcatra at the Holy Ghost Festivals – still popular today.



O Forno- A Bakery on Terceira preserves pastry history

Bolos D. Amelia

It was a special food history  discovery day when I was invited into the kitchen of the famous O Forno Pastelaria (bakery) in Angra do Heroismo on Terceira island. This island in the Azores is part of Portugal and carries on the tradition of baking exceptional pastries in their own unique style. Since the fifteenth century, Terceira has had a  history of being a safe harbour for ships crossing the Atlantic, travelling to and from many trading destinations. The islanders had access to spices and foods that otherwise would have remained unknown to them. 

While visiting I wanted to learn about the traditional pastries of the island.

I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to watch Dona Amélia tarts being made by one of the pastry cooks, helped and overseen by the esteemed owner of the O Forno Pastelaria, Ana Maria Pereira da Costa. Dona Amélias are baked daily at 6:30 a.m., but Ana Maria had arranged a special mixture to be baked at 11 so I didn’t need to rise at the crack of dawn.

Dona Amélia cakes look plain beside some of the other fancies and normally I would pass them by. But these little bundles of sweetness are more than just a taste of heaven; they tell a story in the ingredients.

The story of the cakes is articulately told on nicely packaged boxes of D. Amélias.

First of all, there was the good land. Then the people came and start sowing cereals. Later on they brought the precious spices of exotic tastes and strange scents from East and West Indies.

In typically Portuguese way, they mixed it all with magic and wise hands. They made new and delicious recipes.

When D. Amelia, the last Portuguese Queen, visited the island for the first time, the inhabitants made very special cakes which took her name- D. Amélia– in her honour.

History tells us that when the people of the island learned that the Queen would visit in 1901, the bakers set to work to create a cake as a gift that would tell the story of their island. Because Terceira was a major port for trading , they had access to many spices and exotic ingredients from far off ports. Each ingredient in the cake represents an ingredient from Terceira, or goods from a trading ship that had landed in their waters.

Ana Maria joins Cristina Fernandez to begin making D. Amelia cakes. Below Cristina adds molasses to the eggs, then the corn flour followed by the rest of the dry ingredients.

The simple batter consists of finely ground corn flour grown on the island, eggs and butter from the fields, molasses, raisins, and cinnamon from trade routes, salt and baking powder, with confectioners flour on the top.

When the Queen tasted the cake, she was enamoured by the taste and they named the cake in her honour. It is most common now to make Dona Amélias in the form of small cakes and it is a traditional delicacy of the island.

The owner of the bakery, Ana Maria, is a woman of short stature, but of mighty ambitions. She was raised by parents who owned a bakery several blocks from the current location of her shop. Ana Maria became a teacher but as her life progressed she needed more income to raise her children and opened her own bakery, thirty three years ago. I was told that Ana Maria has collected the old recipes of the island women and of the convents of the island and uses those recipes to bake her pastries. In the past, the nuns would bake and sell sweets to bring in income to support their convents. Although we had no common language, Ana Maria showed me the pastries in the showcase that had originated from the recipes of the convents.

She holds a great deal of culinary history in her mind and has a strong pride in the traditions of the island.

The bakery is located on Rua de S. João, one of the old cobblestoned streets of Angra do Heroismo, a city that is a UNESCO World Heritage site. On the patio patrons can enjoy their food while looking at the historic buildings and people passing. Inside the shop bustles with activity. There are a few tables and counters, and a long showcase of labeled pastries at the end of a glassed in kitchen.  On the wall is a display of framed articles that have been written about the pastry shop in many languages. I spotted a framed recipe. Later I learned that was handwritten by Ana Maria’s mother many years ago.

The recipe for D. Amelias handwritten by Ana Maria’s mother.

Ana Maria’s shop, O Forno, bakes the pastry history of Terceira each day and keeps the traditions alive.

If you are in Terceira do not walk by this pastelaria without stopping in to enjoy a taste of history.  There is a story behind the interesting names of some of those sweets. If you are not in Terceria, look up a recipe for Dona Amelia cakes online and try baking a new taste.

When we search, we find.





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