zondag 8 september 2013

Lava, limpets, and lotsa fresh fish

What I did last Summer: spent two weeks on the Azores.

Why The Azores? Because they have the perfect climate for a summer holiday (a steady 25 degrees), lots of hiking trails, plenty of fresh seafood, many small natural swimming pools, and great opportunities for spotting whales and dolphins. And I was fascinated by this Portuguese outpost almost in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where locals still caught sperm whales in the 1980s with small rowing boats, and where the ocean is a natural part of the landscape.

It's magnificent. All nine islands originated from volcanic activity, the remnants of which are visible in the form of dead volcanoes in the landscape. Settlements are crammed between the steep slopes of the volcanoes on one side and the ocean on the other side, often on what the Azoreans call fajas: small areas of flat land, often consisting of rubble from collapsed rocks. On one side the volcanoes, which used to spew fire and sulfur but are now covered in sinister dark boulders of basalt; on the other side the ocean, thriving with life but also unpredictable and dangerous. You can truly say the Azoreans live between the devil and the deep blue sea.

A taste of local marine biodiversity:
grilled limpets on the island of Sao Jorge
Before you go, read Moby Dick. The American sperm whale fishery of the nineteenth century, so vividly described by Herman Melville, brought whaling to The Azores. Until the Azoreans abandoned whaling in 1983, their method of whaling was very similar to the method described in the book. The Azorean whalers approached the whale in small rowing boats, from which they drove a harpoon into the sperm whale's body. In panic the whale would quickly dive to escape his attackers, who, by means of the rope attached to the harpoon, would be able to track the whale's location. When the whale resurfaced, the whalers would further wound the whale until it succumbed. Catching one whale could take a dangerous and blood-drenched struggle of several hours.

I admit it must have been the most gruesome way of killing an animal, and I'm sure few visitors mourn its demise. But for the Azoreans, especially the people from whaling towns like Lajes do Pico, it was a valuable tradition and a source of pride. We were so lucky to arrive on Pico in the middle of its Whalers Week. Lajes do Pico features two whaling museums, a few whale watching companies, and a small fleet of traditional whaling boats. During the Semana Dos Baleeiros, as the week is called in Portuguese, the people of Pico honor Our Lady of Lourdes, the whalers' patroness saint. The week is a mix of live music (lots of brass bands), folkloric and religious processions, and lots of food (fish, fish, and some meat) and drink (we stuck to the caipirinhas).

The whaling industry has disappeared, not because of animal welfare concerns or because they ran out of sperm whales, but because the products from whaling (oils, fats, proteins, with many applications in cosmetics, agriculture and industry) got more and more competition from cheaper synthetic alternatives. But no more than three years after the local whale oil factory closed down, the first whale watching company emerged. Nowadays a complete industry has evolved in whale watching, swimming with dolphins, diving with sharks, and so on. I'm not sure I agree with all of it, but in any case we enjoyed seeing real-life sperm whales (their flukes, at least). As regards the dolphins, if you're lucky you only have to take the ferry to spot them:

video

The Azores have a small-scale tuna fishery that catches mainly skipjack tuna by pole-and-line. The islands have their own brands, certified with the Friend of the Sea label, and they export most of it to Italy where their particular brand is much preferred. We didn't get to see much of the fishery but we could see the vessels in many of the harbors we passed.

And that, I must say, was perhaps the main treat of the place: fresh fish, fresh seafood, everywhere you go. Species you never heard of but that taste deliciously. A waiter warning you that the fish is not fresh but frozen (the only Dutch restaurants not serving fish from the deep-freeze are vegetarian restaurants). And all that washed down with some delicious Pico wine or mainland vinho verde.

Back to work.

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