Saturday, April 7, 2018

Azores 2018 : Day 3 - Geothermal cooking for an Easter feast

My alarm went off at 4:30 am and I had a quick breakfast before meeting Pedro, his daughter Bella, cousin Natercia and her daughter Leonore. Today was Easter Sunday and they had a special meal planned for us.

In the blackest of night, we drove to Furnas, 30 minutes to the east, encountering almost no cars along the way. There is a highway that runs about three-quarters of the way, but after this it’s a series of dark, steep, hair-raising twists and turns eventually leading up to the higher altitude town of Furnas, famous for the elevated level of geothermal activity. We drove to the caldeiras, which is an area that has boiling water spouting from the ground and collecting in small pool, emitting strong odours of sulphur, but creating some interesting cooking opportunities. In this area, they have bored holes in the ground where you can lower in large pots of food, and then cover it up with lids and dirt to seal in the heat. The traditional “cozida” is left in the ground for six hours and then retrieved with long steel hooks and is ready to eat. The previous night the family had taken all the food we purchased at the market and put it into the large pots, adding nothing except salt, to let the earth’s vapours penetrate and flavour the food.

The rest of the gang was to meet us here at 9 am, so we had a lot of time to use up. Pedro drove into the town centre and knocked at a non-descript back door until a man answered. He disappeared and then returned with a bag of hot, fresh bread and Pedro flipped him a couple of coins. From here we stopped at the single cafe that was open at this atrocious hour and picked up coffees and then continued in the dark to a small park where we enjoyed an early morning picnic of bread, cheese, jam and coffee…oh, and perhaps a small sip of scotch from Natercia’s flask. I have always been a morning person, and this morning was simply beautiful as we watched the sun slowly begin to rise, listened to the birds singing and enjoyed breathing in the fresh, crisp, slightly sulphured air.

I discovered the park was right beside the Poca da Dona Beija hot spring complex so when it opened at 7 am we went inside. What I found was simply incredible - a large stream of hot water, coming down from the forest, steaming like mad, creating a foggy and moist environment. Built up beside the stream was a series of elevated, hot pools, fed by even hotter underground water, all surrounded by lush gardens. The whole scene was otherworldly. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t realize we were going swimming in advance of the others, so I had asked Ana to bring my swimming suit with her. Instead of joining the others in the bath, I explored the grounds for a while and then went for a walk around town as we still had quite a while to wait, and it was simply torture seeing the others being slowly and pleasantly cooked in the natural sous-vide spas.

My walk took me through a beautiful town, full of old houses, some restored and some original, amazing gardens, a huge field of turnips being fed hot water by irrigation channels, and some incredible views over the valley. There’s nothing quite like exploring a new place early in the morning before there are any people around. You have it all to yourself.

The rest of the family arrived around 9:30 and I was changed and settled into a hot pool in a heartbeat. It was heavenly and for some insane reason, for a while there was only one other couple in the entire complex besides us. And the entrance fee was four euro. Crazy.

We spent two hours there, trying out all the pools, visiting, goofing around, and having the best Easter Sunday ever. We returned to the caldeiras at 12:30, picked up our food, and then drove back to Manuel’s house where the rest of the cousins had arranged tables and place settings for the 25 people expected for lunch. Paul Fernando and I unwrapped the pots, had a look inside, and then got busy chopping up the meat and vegetables. Before long everybody had dished up, got themselves seated, and were enjoying the delicious food with wine and beer to wash it down. Besides all the cousins and their families, there were two foreign exchange university students that joined us - Shukru from Turkey and Jesus from Spain. Naturally then, the conversation around the table switched back and forth from English, to Portuguese, to Spanish, as required, so everybody was included. Shukru had recently discovered rock climbing so invited us to join him on Wednesday night for a practice session at a local school, which interested the kids immensely.

Somehow, after the massive lunch, we managed to round up enough people for a soccer game in the nearby park. It was five players per side, plus two of the little girls who didn’t know which side they were on so just chased the ball, screaming, kicking it in random directions. Manuela’s son Fernando was playing while wearing rollerblades on the grassy field - never seen that technique before.

The party continued all afternoon with a lot of loud Portuguese being shouted, not too much different from the family gatherings from home, except that there were fewer English words mixed in. At one point in the conversation Ana asked what the right Portuguese word was for frog, because she’d heard them being called both “sapo” and “ra”. The family were quite sure there was a distinct different between these words, but they had differing opinions on exactly what constituted a sapo or ra. Rui said it depends on size. Natercia said it depends on their colour. Pedro said it definitely depends on the sound they make. I was able to make the distinction quite easily in English; frogs are green and slimy and toads are brown and dry, and sometimes have little horns. To clear things up I devised an experiment: I called up images of frogs or toads on my phone and then showed the same picture to each of them, then had them whisper into my ear if that creature was a sapo or a ra. The major problem with this experiment is that Portuguese people don’t know how to whisper. I don’t think there’s even a word for speaking quietly in Portuguese. Regardless, it was about 50/50 for each picture I showed them. Portuguese is so confusing. I decided right then to intensify my drinking to see if that helped me make more sense of it.

The party continued on and on, long enough to start discussing religion. In this ultra-Catholic country, we discovered a wide range of opinions on the subject, ranging from some cousins wishing they had become priests while others were open atheists. At one point somebody said, “All nuns are bitches!”, and that’s when I knew the discussion was really getting somewhere, so I grabbed another beer and buckled in for the frenzy.

The next thing I knew, it was morning and I had a headache.

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