Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Cheese in the Middle of Nowhere

Almost halfway across the Atlantic you have to travel to reach the last archipelago we will visit during our journey. Nine islands and a few rocks are emerging from the sea, and (you might have guessed it by now) they are all volcanic.
Looking at SaƵ Miguel at least, this does not very much seem like it, for the "Ilha Verde" is covered in a blanket of green. So are the older ones of the islands, whereas for example Pico with its 270.000 years of age only is still quite rocky and grey.
This situation apparently hasn't changed since the years of early exploration; reports from the Portuguese Captain Cabral tell about the necessity to remove large amounts of bush and shrubs from Santa Maria, the first of the islands to be discovered.
The history of the discovery itself, however, is a much disputed one. Old reports and maps by Genoese and Catalan sailors put some nondescript islands in pretty much the same location as the one of the Azores. Cabral's first official claims were made substantially later, in 1431. A few years later the first settlements were established, a bold move, for the islands were more than 1300 kilometers away from the Portuguese homeland. People lived from livestock that they brought themselves (there were no animals on the islands), and planted grain, vine and sugar cane.
Over five centuries later, the archipelago having achieved the status of one of the Autonomous Provinces of Portugal only in 1976, the life of the Azoreans is pretty much based on farming, fishing - and tourism.
The port of Ponta Delgada is impressively modern and can accommodate even the biggest ships. For a good reason, because the position in the middle of the ocean makes it a perfect stopover for trans-Atlantic-going vessels.
We are lucky for several reasons. Not only the weather is fine, but also there is none of the 4000-passenger monsters together in port with us, so the city is not overly crowded. Which is a blessing, as it is a charming place with houses featuring the stark contrast between the dark basaltic rock and gleaming whitewash facades. The pavements are beautifully laid out with intricate ornaments, not two of them alike. The churches are small, but rich in decoration, the bars and restaurants cozy with their chairs outside.
A place to stay and relax.
Unless you have an excursion that takes you across the whole island, explaining all about the amazing volcanism that shaped the landscape, created vast round lakes and provided enough fertile ground for good pastures. The ubiquitous cattle seems quite happy, and happy cows give fine milk. Fine milk, treated well, yields great dairy products, and so - in the middle of the Atlantic - there is an amazing variety of cheese to be found, everywhere.
Chef Jimmy came back with sweat on his brow, carrying enormous amounts of said cheese for the dinner buffet. What a delight!