2000s Archive

Under the Volcano

Originally Published May 2006
When the islands you inhabit are pocked by steaming craters, it only makes sense to take advantage of all that heat

They believe they live atop the lost city of Atlantis. (And Plato’s dialogues would seem to confirm it.) What’s beyond dispute, however, is that they sit on a string of volcanoes whose tremors rattle their windows and frighten their cattle, and whose steamy vents are crucial to the production of a truly remarkable dish.

The people of the Azores have always had to make do. Inhabiting an isolated cluster of islands in the middle of the North Atlantic and separated from Portugal, their ancestral homeland, by some 800 miles of water, they have learned to craft their own wines and cheeses, create impressive dishes around shellfish considered inedible in other parts of the world, and cultivate Europe’s only local tea. They have also learned to cook meals in the bowels of volcanoes.

I first laid eyes on the Azores from the deck of a merchant ship. A young adventurer, I had signed on with the clapped-out rust bucket as a “workaway”—you paid the captain a hundred bucks to work your way to Europe, and at the end of the voyage he either pocketed the money or returned it. This was back when the world was still big and that was a cheap means of getting around it. Because it was January, we were taking the southern route to avoid the gales and ice farther north. Off watch, I was rousted from my sleep by the strains of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons—an apparent favorite of the captain’s— blasting, distorted, from the ship’s loudspeakers. Out on deck, under a near-tropical winter sun, I joined the rest of the crew, who were throwing old oranges and apples to loggerhead turtles diving under the wave created by the ship’s bow. A pair of longboats were chasing a sperm whale lazily breaching in the distance; on the horizon, the peaks of the Azores were visible, poking through an unmoving layer of cloud. Standing on the rolling deck of the ship, I vowed to return one day to those mysterious islands that seemed almost to be clawing their way out of the sea.

And so I’ve come back, years later, to discover for myself what that blanket of cloud concealed.

“This is our exhaust pipe,” says Filipe de Sousa Lima, a local business executive, motioning toward his feet. “Our relief valve.” We are standing in the center of the Furnas volcano, staring at a pool of boiling mud. The walls of the caldera rise steeply on all sides and then disappear into the clouds. A breeze pushes a plume of thick, sulfurous steam over us, and the ground rumbles beneath our feet. I get the sensation that this fragile stratum of the earth’s crust will crack open like ice and send us plummeting into the inferno below.

“Are there earthquakes as well?”

“Nearly every day,” says Filipe. “Some of them we can feel. In fact, word has it there is an underwater volcano building off one of the islands now. We’ve learned to live with risk.”

Just then, the steam clears, exposing some odd-looking holes a few feet wide that have been carved out of the surface. “We use these holes as ovens,” Filipe tells me. “We cook cozido in them.” He has arranged for me to join in the preparation and consumption of this traditional and highly unusual feast, the islands’ claim to culinary fame. As he runs through the dish’s multitude of ingredients, I catch a rich whiff of food; some of these natural ovens, covered by mounds of dirt, are already at work. And there are other volcanic ovens nearby, I later discover, that are not so public.

You have to stoop to get through the front door of Maria Serafina Ventura Canto’s tidy lava-stone house. Set back from the road in the village of Furnas, her home, like the gingerbread structures around it, is built quite solidly upon the thin mantle that separates the center of the earth from the life above it. A frail, stooped woman of indeterminate years, Serafina lives here with her deaf mother-in-law, who when I visit is waiting in a straight-backed chair for her afternoon cup of the local green tea. The house—a cozy place redolent of heady, grandmotherly smells—is a piece of living history. Though Serafina has made a few concessions to the 21st century (she has electricity, and an old black-and-white television sits in the corner), there’s no kitchen in the house. Her kitchen, she tells me, is outside, in the back.

Serafina leads me out of the house and along a cinder path, past an orange tree, two pigs, and a cage of fluttering doves and squawking chickens, to a small shed. Inside, she removes the feed bags lying in a heap on top of some planking and, kicking away the wood, proudly reveals her oven: a three-foot-wide hole in the earth, alive with hissing steam and -bubbling mud. She uses the volcanic vent not only as an oven—with dozens of children and grandchildren in the area, she has plenty of opportunity to prepare her version of cozido—but for nearly everything else a stove could provide. Here, she boils the water for her morning tea and heats the water that she then transfers to a galvanized tub for bathing.

But Filipe has arranged a more upscale cozido for me. The preparation of the ingredients and the feast itself will take place at the stately home of Isabel Medeiros. An elderly woman of aristocratic bearing and sparkling good humor, Isabel plans to use one of the more public ovens, located in the center of the caldera—where no houses stand and where the earth’s crust is at its thinnest. Cozido must be cooked precisely, and she is extremely familiar with the characteristics of those ovens.

Subscribe to Gourmet