So, one early morning way back in a chilly January, I receive an early morning phone call from a wine agent asking if I would be interested in doing a dinner presenting some wines alongside my old pal Chef Jamie Kennedy.
“Of course I would. I do charity gigs with him all the time… after all these years we still get on like a house on fire”
“It would be in the Azores though… would that work for you?”
My brain starts kicking into gear, attempting to recall exactly where the Azores are… Hmmmmm… aren’t they somewhere in the Caribbean? … or maybe South America? Hold on… Portugal…
is it… are they not near Portugal?
Attempting to keep the phone conversation flowing, and hopefully masking my ignorance, I slyly initiate a Google image search and come up with this.
“Yesssssss… I’d be into doing that… definitely… definitely”
And thus began my Azorean adventure.
So where exactly are the Azores?
Well, the Azores are a series of nine volcanic islands that lie in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, some 850 miles off the coast of Portugal. So that is WAY freaking out there, much further out than say Madeira or the Canary Islands.
They are in-fact only 1,1196 miles southeast of Newfoundland. As well as looking like something our of Jurassic Park, they are also sub-tropical and hence one could almost view them as a kind-of mid-Atlantic Hawaii.
Despite being one of two autonomous regions of Portugal, the people of the Azores proudly maintain a distinctive character, culture, dialect, and determination that immediately distinguishes them from the populace of the mainland. Strangely enough, I was told on a number of occasions that they are often viewed by the mainland Portuguese in a similar manner to that in which the Canadians have historically referenced Newfies.
One correlation that I did find between the people of the Azores and those of Newfoundland was a genuine sense of welcoming warmth and hospitality… something that my family and I will never forget.
Speaking of hospitality, and getting back to the story at hand, the reason for my invitation was to be part of the Azores 10 Fest, a ten day festival of gastronomy and wines organised and executed by the São Miguel School of Tourism and Hospitality. Now in its fourth year, 10 Fest invites Chefs and Sommeliers from around the world to participate in a series of 10 ticketed dinners, where they work alongside the school’s students in the kitchens and on the floor of the spectacular Anfiteatro restaurant and lounge overlooking the Ponta Delgado marina.
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As it transpired, I wasn’t actually working with Jamie Kennedy but with a young Michelin-starred Chef called João Rodrigues from Restaurante Feitoria in Lisbon, Portugal. Our dinner would be on the Saturday evening as the closing event of this year’s 10 Fest, with Chef Kennedy’s dinner taking place on the Friday night.
When I met Chef Rodrigues for the first time on the Thursday he was in the process of sourcing and consolidating all of the local ingredients he required for his dinner. We sat down and he took me through the myriad courses, explaining in minute detail the ingredients that I was entirely unfamiliar with.
Cracas? (a very particular local barnacle), Splendid Alfonsino? (A small white fish native to the surrounding waters), Amberjack? (Another larger, meatier indigenous fish), as well as plethora of endemic, locally-foraged plants to be used as both ingredients and garnishes (later that evening I actually bumped into Chef hauling a huge black bag full of his foraged haul back to the hotel).
It quickly became apparent that Chef Rodrigues was quite passionate about wines, and so he became an invaluable resource with regards to how I was going to go about pairing with his menu. It’s so very difficult to know how to match wines when many of the components of the dishes are new to you. Thankfully Chef Rodrigues was more than happy to give me some direction, drawing from his previous experience with both the ingredients and the wines. After our meeting I headed off to A Vinha Garrafeira, the wine sponsor of our event, to taste through a wide array of Portuguese bottles that I was to choose our wines from.
When I arrived at Anfiteatro the following day, it took me some time to locate my new friend. I found him elbow deep in octopus and barnacles in the prep kitchen, patiently talking the young students through each stage of the preparation for Saturday’s seven course menu.
With a bevvy of wines on hand, Chef prepared each of the individual courses for me, and then we both spent considerable time tasting through the bottles I had isolated from the original line-up provided by our sponsor. Some of my original choices were absolute disasters in practice, one of my selections turning out to be one of the most disgusting pairings I have ever experienced… the less said about that the better actually.
Over the years I must have co-ordinated what feels like hundreds of wine dinners, and for the most part the pairings are never explored and tested like this. More often than not there is simply not enough time to co-ordinate such discourse. So often the wines are shoe-horned into the menu or vice versa, the customer experience often lacking much at the end of the day. Working with Chef Rodrigues in this manner was an extremely satisfying process. And our dinner on the Saturday was all that much better because of this.
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On the Saturday morning my family took a leisurely trip to the hot springs of Furnas, to the west of the island… or as leisurely as a trip can be with a 14 month old little boy in the back of the car. The springs themselves were the perfect way to relax and gather one’s thoughts before the pressures of the night ahead. Floating around in the naturally-heated bathing pools and going over the tasting notes and descriptors in my head was really quite idyllic.
By the time I returned to Ponta Delgado, and showed my face at Anfiteatro, things were already underway, with the 80 guests enjoying a selection of cocktails designed specifically for the 10 fest and served up by the enthusiastic young students. The lounge and restaurant were the picture of calm thanks to the able stewardship of Joao Couto, Pedro Jerónimo, and Ana Loras, three of the full-time non-student staff at the restaurant, and the team responsible for the smooth execution of the 10 Fest events, as well as the year-round operation of the place.
What happened next is all a bit of a blur. All I can tell you is that I had one of the most thrilling nights of my career.
At a certain point I decided that rather than speak to each of the wines over the microphone, it would be much better to speak to all of the tables individually. Quite what led me to this fantastical leap of logic I am not exactly sure, as negotiating a room that big, with that many tables, and attempting to do this once for each of seven courses was a feat of truly Herculean proportions… especially for an ageing veteran Sommelier like myself.
Nevertheless I persevered, and in doing so I believe brought a whole new experience into play for the diners present. I just hope that they enjoyed it all as much as I did!
By far my favourite part of the evening was working with the students. Their passion and pride in what they do was evident from the get-go. Although they were still students learning their craft, their professionalism would put a few Canadian kitchen and Front-Of-House staff to shame.
It was also a real treat to work with a Chef as skilled as João Rodrigues. I cannot stress enough just how much I appreciated his eternal patience with my lack of knowledge when it came to so many of his ingredients. That was certainly a learning experience for me. I’m really looking forward to working with him again on his home turf in Lisbon next year. Watch this space for more details.
My heartfelt gratitude goes out to all the students and staff of the school at Anfiteatro, especially Director Filipe Rocha for going out on a limb and inviting me in the first place. I do hope that my irreverent contributions were of some value to the diners, staff, and students. Thank you for a truly memorable Azorean journey.
Expect a full report about the wines of the Azores in the coming weeks…
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… And that evening presenting wines alongside Chef Rodrigues was a career highlight.