Friday, July 31, 2015

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 16. My first day as a luxury tourist.

The buffet breakfast was a nice affair, with all sorts of delicacies. I liked in particular a thick slice of fresh cheese with a spoonful of Azorean salsa (yes, Azoreans have seen the light and are beginning to use salsa), and of course several cups of coffee. The damn tooth is still bothering me, so I have to chew with my right molars and have to avoid biting with the incisors.

At 9 am our perfectly charming tour guide, Marco, met us at the lobby and escorted us to our bus. There are only 14 of us, but we have been assigned a 40-seat bus, so we have plenty of space to spread out. The first half hour of the ride was a bit of a blur because I fell asleep, but after that we settled in a regular pattern of stopping at a view point, taking a picture, and getting back on the bus. Marco is very good and kept the story going, so we learned quite a bit about the Azores, their autonomous government (they are like Hawaii, their own state within Portugal), and a bit of its history. The Azores were not colonized until the Portuguese came in the early 1400’s (so even later than Iceland!), and for a long time have been hanging out here on their own. For a time in the 1700’s to1900’s they were big producers of oranges, which first the British navy would load by the barrel in their ships to fight scurvy, and then Europe would import to celebrate Christmas, but a plague hit the trees 30 years ago and that industry disappeared.

Another historic industry has been dairies, and that is why many of them immigrated to America to work in the dairies of Stanislaus County. Everyone here has a cousin who lives in Turlock or Delhi. They produce all imaginable dairy products, although I have never really heard of Azorean cheese as being outstanding. They are currently strengthening their banking sector (but being a part of the EU there is only so much they can do), and they are looking at tourism as the next big industry. And it is the next big industry! Sao Miguel is beautiful and incredible scenic, all the towns are gorgeous and newly painted (I see EU grants playing a big role in this), they have some fine hotels, prices are still reasonable, and you are in Europe! Between Hawaii and the Azores I would take the Azores any day of the week!

Three things deserve special mention. The first is the town of Furnas, which extends along the shores of a lake nested inside a small caldera. Furnas means “furnaces” and tells you about the presence of fumaroles and boiling springs throughout the city. In one of the parks (a fantastic example of imported vegetation, because there is very little left of the native vegetation) there is a large, rusty colored pool of hot water where the locals like to bathe. The odd thing about this pool is that the hot water that feeds into it is perfectly clear. My interpretation is that iron is in the Fe2+ form in the incoming water, which happens to be soluble, so of course one cannot see it and the water is clear. As it mixes with the oxygenated waters of the pool the iron is oxidized to its Fe3+ form, forms insoluble iron hydroxides, and gives the water its rusty color. A neat example of geochemistry in action.

Still in the subject of fumaroles, the folks here have a tradition, in which they bring to the fumarole fields their pots of cozido (a mix of meat of beef, pork, and chicken meats, blood sausage and pork sausage, and cabbage, carrots, kale, and potatoes), and for a small fee they can put it inside one of the steaming holes, cover it with dirt, and let it cook for about 6 hours until it is ready at lunch time. Restaurants make a big to do about sending their vans to pick up the cozido at noon, and everybody seats to lunch at 12:30 to big steaming plates of cozido. It is very yummy, but I would like it to have more broth, like in the Spanish cocido.

The second memorable thing was a tea plantation. Now tea these days is cultivated in southeast Asia, India, Kenya, and apparently also in the Azores. Tea was brought to the islands two hundred years ago as a gift from some clueless potentate, and the Azoreans have kept a modest production going ever since. The machines are still of 1800 vintage, and at the plantation they did a great job explaining the different types of tea there is. For example, black tea and green tea come from the same plant, but the black tea is made with the tender shoots, and is oxidized before drying, whereas green tea comes from the not-as-tender shoots, and is steamed instead of oxidized before drying. Both types of tea are “rolled” to give the aspect of little sticks so common in black tea.

The third very memorable thing are pineapples, which under normal circumstances would not grow in the Azores (I believe they need hotter, drier climate). This local family, however, has been growing pineapples in greenhouses for ever, and the fruit is now firmly entrenched in the Azorean diet. First, after you cut a ripe pineapple, you strip the underlying stem of leaves, and bury it horizontally in shallow moist soil. This enhances asexual reproduction by budding. Once the small pineapples have sprouted they are transplanted to another bed, where they can grow for about 6 months. Then you “poison” the plants with smoke (the plant thinks it is in peril, and puts out a flower as an emergency measure to give the next generation a chance). The pineapple is the thickening at the base of the flower, which you let grow for a few weeks. Then the pineapple is “castrated” by removing the inner portion of the flower (so, alas, in all its ingenuity the plant doesn’t get to reproduce), and the resulting “capon” gets to grow fat and sweet for about 18 months. If you want to know whether you have a pineapple that has gone through this process all you have to do is look at the crown. If it is tall and bushy the pineapple was not castrated and may not be as sweet. If it is pitifully small you are probably looking at a very sweet pineapple.

Dinner was way too late, and I had a simple fish soup because my tooth keeps bothering me and I cannot face anything too al dente. It is beginning to feel like all of my upper jaw is numb. Rats! 

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