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Going Portu-cheese: A cheesy trip to the Azores

We set down in the Azores to find out what makes the powerhouse of Portuguese cheese so great.

Azores, Portugal

That’s it, I give up. Despite its similarities to the emerald pastures and stone walls of Ireland, the rugged beauty and hot springs of Iceland, and even the moss-covered hobbit holes of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, there’s absolutely nothing that compares to the breathtaking landscapes of the Azores.

Unparalleled as her natural good looks may be, though, ask the average person to locate the Portuguese archipelago and you’ll be met with shrugged shoulders followed by a chorus of “you don’t say!” as you point to the cluster of nine volcanic islands, which lie 1,500 km west of Lisbon.

For every cheese lover like me – someone lucky enough to be exploring the islands for five days with fellow writers – it’s definitely a place you should get to know. Cheese making has been a part of the Azores since the first Flemish settlers arrived more than 500 years ago, and it doesn’t take long to see signs of the Azores’ dairy disposition.

Before we even receive a menu at our first meal in São Miguel, a plate of queijo fresco (“fresh cheese”) arrives at our table. The bright white cheese, decorated with a flash of blood-red pimienta del terra – a pickled condiment made from peppers grown on the island – is a staple in households here, popping up at the table like olives in Italy (only more delicious and likely to spoil your appetite). The Associação Agrícola de São Miguel houses one of the top dining spots on the island and coordinates the EU Free Grazing Project. To promote Azorean cheese in Canada, the initiative does things like bring writers like yours truly to experience the island firsthand.

Cheese from the Azores, Portugal

Unileite factory produces a traditional island cheese known as São Miguel or black cheese, for the colour of its rind

As I cover yet another piece of crusty bread with fresh cheese, I try to distract my hosts from my gluttony and jet lag with questions about our itinerary. Despite arriving just a few hours earlier in Ponta Delgada on a red-eye flight, there’s no time for naps as we have plenty of ground to cover on our short but delicious trip.

Portugal, clinging to the edge of Europe in relative obscurity, might be better-known for treats like pasteis de nata (custard tarts) and port from the Duoro Valley than cheese. Yet, the southern European country is a prolific dairy producer, with – as we’re about to see – half of its cheese made here in the Azores.

Our first stop is the Unileite factory, producer of a traditional island cheese known as São Miguel or black cheese, for the colour of its rind. With lab jackets, plastic shower caps and booties donned, we head around the factory to learn the step-by-step process of cheese making. We watch like front-row spectators at a dairy fashion show, as a parade of milk is heated, cooled, cleaned and moulded into the perfect shape, before brine is added and wax is applied to the wheels of cheese.

Cows graze outside 365 days a year in the Azores

Unlike mainland Portugal, which uses plenty of sheep and goat’s milk, the cheese here is produced from the milk of cows. The animals are a common sight in the Azores – hardly surprising when we learn that they graze 365 days a year, the only spot in Europe where this is possible.

The Green Island, as São Miguel is nicknamed, only uses five per cent of the land for commercial and residential use, freeing up plenty of space for the cows to spread out. Though a herd is the collective term, the creatures here seem too nonconformist for such a label, appearing between hedges of the native blue hydrangeas, horns peering proudly over dry-stone walls.

The cows have every right to feel smug. Depending on which of the nine islands you visit, they might be in the majority – like on São Jorge, our next stop, where it’s estimated that there are two cows for every person.

The narrow stretch of land, just 53 km long and eight km wide, is, incredibly, even more beautiful than São Miguel, with sharp cliffs and craters formed by volcanic eruptions. In 1986, São Jorge cheese was given the status of a Protected Designation of Origin, meaning that it must be traditionally and entirely manufactured on the island.

Cheese from the Azores, Portugal

The semi-soft cheese, made from raw milk, has been produced since the 16th century. São Jorge cheese is often considered to be the best in the Azores, and after trying a series of tangy varieties at the Uniqueijo’s facilities, I can see why.

Cheddar-like, giving way to the crumbly mouthfeel of a Comté, São Jorge is buttery at its core, with a spicy, lingering feel that only intensifies the longer it ages. While the 24-month-old São Jorge is too overpowering for some of the group, it’s impressive to witness how much flavour is packed into even the youngest cheese.

Every batch is analyzed and tested on smell, taste and appearance, and only the crème de la crème will be awarded the PDO label, an assurance of the highest quality. The dark yellow cheese must have at least 45 per cent fat, a minimum maturation of three months, a diameter of 25 to 35 cm, a height of 10 to 15 cm and must weigh between 8 and 12 kg in order to make the cut.

Paula Rego was 17 when she started a cheese factory

Back on São Miguel, one young turophile has found a modern way to make cheese. Paula Rego was only 17 years old when she started a cheese factory, but in the beginning, it wasn’t exactly a passion project. Like many Azorean producers, Rego’s family farm was dealt a setback in 2015 when the EU decided to scrap milk quotas (meaning more could be sold overseas), sending the price plunging. After learning how to make cheese by watching YouTube videos, the young businesswoman opened Queijaria Furnense and began to use up her family’s excess milk.

Paula Rego, Queijaria Furnense, Portugal

Paula Rego was only 17 years old when she started a cheese factory in Furnas

One unique ingredient used in the 520 cheeses handmade daily, is the local water from Furnas. The slightly sour-tasting liquid comes from Lagoa das Furnas, an area of high tourist traffic that’s famous for its geothermal hot springs and iron-rich mineral water.

When we arrive at Rego’s store in the early afternoon, it could easily pass for a hipster café in Toronto. She answers our questions, politely interrupting to serve customers now and again, until the braying mob has reached a crescendo of clamouring hands and voices reminiscent of the latest cronut food trend.

By her own admission, Rego’s first attempts were “not good,” but practicing for one and a half years eventually made perfect (or pretty close). Queijaria Furnense has received awards for its cheese, which come in five varieties including buttery, cured and one that combines garlic and oregano. But the most thrilling of all are her wildly delicious chocolate candies, which combine flavours like passionfruit, Nutella, fig and even white wine with her cheese.

“I have to dream big,” says Rego. “I want to make the best cheese in the world.”

Full of bonbons, cheese and ice cream, we twist and turn our way back down the mountains, making it impossible to fix my gaze and avert the waves of nausea. Since I’m not alone, the driver pulls over to the side of the road to let the motion-sick among us catch our breath while taking in yet another breathtaking scene in which eye-achingly green pastures drop abruptly into the blue sea.

Down and to our right, we spot a cluster of thrill-seeking cows who have opted to dangle over a precipitous verge of grass despite having acres of pasture to graze on. In this bovine paradise, the free-range cows behave like guests at a spa, sashaying unhurried across an all-you-can-eat grass buffet, answering only to the farmer’s bell that calls them to their mobile milking machines, an Azorean creation that ensures the cows can be milked twice a day at sunrise and sunset.

The Azores, Portugal

It’s not just the cows who feel the magnetic pull of the Azores. Claudio Pontes worked in some of Lisbon’s top restaurants for several years before returning to his hometown of São Miguel.

Impressed by the island’s produce, he staged a homecoming in 2016, opening À Terra (“the land”), the restaurant inside the Azor Hotel in Ponta Delgada.

“I feel, as a chef, that this is my backyard,” says Pontes. “I can take it all – the fish, the cheese, the meat – it’s the best.”

Pontes is working hard to showcase the island’s cuisine. The São Miguel native organizes culinary events and invites Michelin-starred chefs from around the world to taste the Azores for themselves.

Back in Toronto, I chat to another passionate purveyor of Azorean produce, Afrim Pristine, maître fromager of the Cheese Boutique in Toronto’s west end.

“I know quite a lot about Portuguese cheese but I’m still a novice,” says Pristine, as he whips me up a plate of simple but delicious pasta using cheese from São Miguel. “We need the awareness to be a lot higher, we need the product to be consistently coming into Canada.”

For the cheese-curious, good news is on the way. Two years ago, Canada changed their import quotas, meaning more European cheese can make its way across the Atlantic and into the country. While a trip to the islands should be on everyone’s bucket list, Canadians needn’t go further than Queen West to bring the best of the islands’ cheese and butter home.

By the end of my Azores trip, I began to grow numb to all the talk of delicious milk, taking for granted the high-calibre dairy that the island is blessed with. But when I chat with Pristine I am reminded that when dealing with such a simple product – one that consists of just milk and salt – the quality of its ingredients cannot be overstated.

“It’s big and bold and brassy,” says Pristine. “You can taste the grass in this cheese, it’s really, really unique.”

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