Thursday, April 12, 2018

Azores 2018 : Day 10 - Breakfast of champions

Our final breakfast in the Azores, and this was going to be a special one. Last week Paulo had told us about this famous breakfast joint in Ribeira Grande that served “dinner for breakfast” on Sundays, but you had to be there by 7:30 - it was so busy that if you arrived later, there might not be any food left.

Practically the whole family turned out for breakfast - 12 in all -  and we drove to Ribeira Grande and parked near the Restaurant Faria. It looked like a typical snack bar from the outside, and inside - except for the two large dining areas tucked in behind the bar and accessed through a gritty corridor.

There was a flurry of activity in the place - jugs of wine, huge steaming plates of food, people eating and laughing, and the typical dim radioactive fluorescent lighting flattering nobody. The server asked how many were in our group and somebody did a count and said twelve. There were tables for four, a table for six, and a table for two, currently occupied by two gents finishing up their meal. The server did some mathematics in his head, walked over to the two dudes, and said, “You guys are finished - get out!” Shockingly, they did, and laughed the whole time. The server then started frantically re-arranging chairs and tables, and we tried to help but we were just bodies getting in the way. We finally got seated and the server told us what they had, and what they had was beef stew, fava bean stew, fresh bread and cheese, and a bean stew with simmered chunks of pork skin. No waffles, no eggs Benedict, no yoghurt and fruit plate - that’s for wimps. To drink, we were offered wine, which most happily accepted. The wine was brought out in gigantic, half litre water glasses - the only way to drink it on Sunday morning at 7:30.

Soon, the plates and bowls of food began appearing. It was delicious. Paulo said, “You don’t think you would enjoy this sort of meal in the morning…until you are actually having it!” It was almost like being in a casino - no windows and a lot of people enjoying themselves, so it could have been 9 at night or 2 in the afternoon or indeed early in the morning. Shortly before we left, somebody asked the server how long this restaurant has been here. He said, “it’s been here for 100 years, and I have worked her for 42 of them. Years ago, my mom and dad started the tradition of serving big, heavy meals to the fisherman who were returning from the sea early in the morning and looking for some good food.

The bill for 12 meals, 6 juice and 3 litres of wine was 75 euro, so we settled up with the server, and then drove to the nearby Santa Barbara surfing beach for a laboured and sluggish beach walk, followed up with espressos and pastries at a nearby gas station. Yes, in the Azores you can get amazing coffee and tarts at a gas station, and they also had a large variety of wines on offer.

Paulo then lead us back to their house in Socas for a look at their place and a tour of the neighbourhood. The streets leading to their house are amazing as there are ancient rock walls on both sides of the road, some as high as 15 feet. Paulo also showed me his cool new 750 cc motorcycle in the garage. I showed him the motorcycle endorsement on my Ontario driver’s license. He handed me a helmet and said, “It’s all yours.” What a ride I had! This place is built for motorcycles - narrow streets, winding roads, steep inclines, amazing scenery, incredible smells, and a limitless number of roads to explore. I was only gone for 15 minutes, but I could have happily ridden around all day.

Their neighbours Cidalia and Fernando called us over to see their farm and new baby cow. The kids were mesmerized with the calf and all took turns petting and hugging it. Cidalia went to school in Canada so spoke perfect English, and Fernando was also fluent, and they toured us around their greenhouses, fields, and then their lovely house, built up on a hill with magnificent views to the hills and to the ocean. They offered us coffee, which turned into drinks, which turned into snacks, which turned into a full-blown afternoon lunch of charcoal grilled chicken, eggplant, potatoes, cheese, and salad fresh from their garden. And a single glass of wine that I never found the bottom of, as they kept filling it up. While the girls were preparing lunch, the men went for a drive to Fernando’s dad’s house to pick up some homemade wine and drink a shot of Portuguese moonshine. He had a lovely house and a huge chunk of land, planted with carrots, potatoes, cabbage, fruit trees, banana trees, all sorts of herbs, grape vines; all of which he took care of on his own, at the age of 80 (but he looked 60). Ana’s uncle Manuel was with us too, and he has known Fernando’s dad since they were kids in school together. The two of them were having a roaring conversation and, though I couldn’t make out every word, it went something like this:

“Do you remember Maria? You know, Maria that lived in that blue house up by the vineyards.”

“Yeah, I remember her. She got married to Joe”

“That’s right, Joe from Santa Cruz.”

“No, no, she married Joe from Livramento, he lived in that small, green house”

“Small green house? Wasn’t that John the fisherman that lived there?

“No, John the fisherman lived with his brother in that place down the street”

“Oh, yes, I remember them, they gave me my first cigarette! But I’m sure Maria married Joe from Santa Cruz.”

“Wait, are you talking about Maria that had that sister Inez?”

“No, I’m talking about Maria de Luz!”

“Ahh, Maria de Luz! Yes, I remember her. She married Joe from Livramento. He used to buy my carrots.”

“Ahh, right, I remember those carrots you grew. Didn’t you used to rent the land from Manuel with the gimpy foot?”

“No, no, I rented it from the other Manuel, the one that married the sister of Pedro who worked at the milk factory.”

“Ahh, Pedro, right. I saw him the other day, down at the market. He was with Joe.”

“Joe the painter?”

“No, no, Joe the mason. He’s the one that rebuilt my sister’s fence.”

“What happened to your sister’s fence?”

“A cow knocked it over.”

“Was it Tony’s cow? He lets those things graze all over the place.”

“Yes. Maria in the small house with the nice Jesus tiles across the street recognized the cow.”

“Ahh. I’ve always liked those Jesus tiles on Maria’s place.”

This went on for quite some time and in the end I’m not sure who won the Azores trivia challenge for the day, but in any case, we said our goodbyes and returned to the farm for more drinks and a late afternoon mini dance party, which was much too brief, but we had to get in one last visit with Ana’s aunt.

For the first time in the trip, the local hospitality led me to be incapable of safely navigating the streets of Sao Miguel, so Ana took the driver’s seat, grabbed the stick shift and peeled off down the road. Ana claims she doesn’t know how to drive a manual transmission car, but she sure does - just doesn’t like it much. I did the co-piloting, pulling the emergency brake at the required times, flipping through radio stations, and navigating the roadways to her aunt’s place. Sadly, she was not home, and even after polling several of the neighbours, we couldn’t find her, so we drove back to Manuel’s house to take a breather and consider our next move.

Several times this trip I’ve been making jokes about how much I love eel stew. I’ve only actually had it a couple of times, but I do really love it, and Ana’s mom makes a great one. I’ve been watching for it on the menus but haven’t seen it anywhere. When we got to Manuel’s we learned that after we left the farm, Natercia had driven to the supermarket, bought some eel, and Cidalia was cooking up a big eel stew, because they decided I shouldn’t have to leave the Azores without having eel stew. My god. Does their hospitality have no limits?? I should have been hinting for foot rubs and back scratches, because there’s no doubt I would have got those too. What an amazing place.

The whole family showed up for our final night, and we enjoyed an incredibly delicious meal of eel stew, as well a huge pot of calde verde (kale soup) that Natercia made. This was all late on a Sunday night, when everybody had to go back to school and work the next day. This is what makes the Azores so special to us.

We said our goodbyes to everybody and there were a few tears to be sure. Though the time had gone fast, it felt to me as if we’d been here for months, not just 10 days. We are not going to let 6 years go by before we visit again.

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