SAN MIGUEL, Azores --It was the home team's turn last night.
Considered the most important of the 10 nights of the Azores food festival -- 10FestAzores'14 -- June 21, when summer began, gave chefs from the School of Training and Hospitality, host of the cooking stars from different countries around the world, the chance to display the cuisine of the Azores to the assembled diners/guests here.
Pedro Oliveira, born in San Miguel, chef/instructor of the School of Training and Hospitality, and Chef Sandro Meireles, originally from mainland Portugal, responsible for the culinary area of the school, and their team of Azorean chefs, took the traditional foods and recipes of the Azores to the gastronomic mountaintop at the dinner for 80 guests which took place, as are all these vents, in the sparkling contemporary dining room of their Anfiteatro Restaurant overlooking the marina in Ponta Delgada.
Among the diners was Kevin Duffy, a former chef at the Ritz Carlton Boston, now an instructor at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, who will be a guest chef here later this week. Duffy sends chefs from Johnson and Wales here for master classes and has been responsible for connecting the Rhode Island cooking school to the institution of gastronomy here in San Miguel.
The eight-course meal, called Black on White because of the local white wines flavored by black lava rocks on the island, as well as its black pudding, its barnacles, dark chocolate and other foods, concentrated on the many offerings from the sea which surrounds the archipelago of Azores: tuna, urchins, scorpionfish and bluemouth rockfish among others.
But the traditional method of cooking in the home kitchens of the Azores is to put much of the plentiful fish into a soup or a stew and serve it for dinner during the week, while the fish is served outside of a broth on weekends and meat is saved for festival days. These masters of fine cuisine braised the tuna on Saturday night and paired it with polent, red cabbage, pickled onion and glazed celery, put the rockfish in safflower and seafood juices, added red pepper chips to the roasted meat, and took all the Azorean basics upscale for a beautiful blend with the wines, many of which came from Pico Island, which has the best soil of the nine Azores islands for grapes.
The wine for the black pudding with carmelized pineapple ad foie gras was Czar Licoroso Meio Doso 2008, called "Czar" because when the Russian czar first tasted it he loved it so much that he had it sent to Russia, where the people loved it as well. The unfortified wine is naturally 18.4 percent alcohol with 30.6 grams of sugar, and only 900 bottles of it were made in 2008, which means you pretty much have to travel to the Azores to get a taste of this nectar. Red wines are rare in the Azores, because it rains here in September, when the red grapes should be maturing in the sun, so there is not enough time for the process to turn them into wine.
The coffee, from St. George Island, is also rare, as there are not a lot of coffee bean plants on that small space, but the taste is rich and different from the more common coffees from Brazil and other South American countries.
The best course of the night, in this writer's opinion, was the dessert: local yuzu lemon creme brulee, Indian fig sorbet, and white chocolate "pumice," which had the exact feel of a piece of lava, giving the whole dish a delightful blend of textures and unusual flavors combined in a heavenly mixture on the tongue.
Have you ever had a piece of chocolate flavored with tobacco? Or a Grappa made into gelatin eaten with a small spoon out of a shot glass and cut into tiny cubes that melted with flavor as they hit your mouth? These were just some of the incredibly inventive, surprising, and delicious was that the chefs upscaled the relatively basic ingredients. Carmelized pineapple? So much better than your pineapple chunks out of a can.
This is not a meal you're ever going to want to recreate in your own kitchen, as the labor is so intensive and time consuming. Therefore, you should plan on enjoying this kind of heightened Azorean goodness at next year's 10FestAzores'15, where you can enjoy the other pleasures of this island, such as whale watching, sailing, diving, hiking volcanoes, visiting the boiling hot water pools and the 18th Century botanical garden in the town of Furnas, where you can also swim in the healing mineral waters of the pool there.
You'd better do one of the activities above, after all the good eating you'll be doing at this gourmet festival.