PONTA DELGADA -- I had the good fortune to grow up well fed. This was due in no small part to my godmother, Estelle Carvalho, a loud, indomitable force of nature who retired from a career in the Fall River mills when she found her true calling: preparing Azorean meals for the family she loved.
The distinctive flavor of Estelle's cooking was due to her profligate use of the Portuguese sausage linguia, and its thicker, richer cousin, chourio. The bright red links accompanied all her roasts and were the essential ingredient of her Thanksgiving stuffing. In summer, chourio (pronounced shur-EESE in Fall River and New Bedford) defined her clambakes, while linguia (lin-GWEE-sah) took the place of franks on the grill. And at any time of year, chourio was great in omelets or, sliced up and fried with potatoes, perfect for a quick, savory meal.
When Estelle died a few years back, things changed. I missed a generous spirit who loved those around her not for what they did but for what they were: her blood. And I missed Estelle's cooking, so much that I gradually developed a permanent craving for linguia.
Linguia is like no other sausage. Often compared with pepperoni because it is highly spiced, its flavor is so utterly unique that the comparison is simply not useful. And outside Fall River and New Bedford, Azorean chourio and linguia are difficult to find, except for the supermarket variety that appears from time to time and rarely measures up to my pampered taste.
So when I arrived for the first time on So Miguel, the "old country" as Estelle would say, the first item on my agenda was an authentic linguia feast. My wife, Kim, new to Portuguese cuisine, was eager to sample the Old World delicacy I described as we set out for one of the town's more expensive restaurants in the Hotel Talisman, off a tiled pedestrian pathway not far from the harbor.
Inside, the dimmed lights and finery held much promise, but I should have known something was amiss when I asked our waiter to recommend a local wine, only to be steered to a mainland variety. (The Azores are an autonomous region of Portugal, and Ponta Delgada the islands' capital.)
Turning quickly to the menu, I scanned the appetizers, soups, entrees, even the desserts, without finding a single item featuring linguia or chourio.
Disappointed, I settled for the seafood soup, which turned out to be mostly potatoes, and a mediocre steak. When I asked our waiter about the missing linguia he demurred, saying only that it wasn't available.
The next morning, first thing, I went directly to the registration desk at the Hotel Cames and asked the polite woman taking reservations if she could recommend a good restaurant featuring linguia. She just smiled, a little derisively I thought, and said she couldn't think of one. Then I got it: Linguia is peasant food, unfit for the continental and American tourists visiting the island, at least in the minds of Ponta Delgada's restaurateurs.
To confirm my suspicion, Kim and I headed to the farmers' market, a short walk from the waterfront. There, hanging in resplendent glory from nearly every butcher's stall, I beheld the vision I knew in my heart I would find: row after row of linguia and chourio in all their magnificent variety. It was then that I realized I was staying in an upscale hotel room with no cooking facilities -- surely a mortal sin in Estelle's eyes -- and that people all over Ponta Delgada would be going home that night to pile their plates high with linguia. But not me.
It's entirely possible that the city's epicures would simply rather avoid a home-style meal when dining out. Still, I also felt that by not offering many of the Azores' distinctive wines, cheeses, and sausages, Ponta Delgada's chefs are demonstrating they lack the confidence to put their best foot forward when catering to visitors. I had the same feeling when visiting Terceira, the second most populous island in the archipelago, where linguia was also missing from several of the menus at upscale retaurants.
It was only when I arrived on the island of Pico, a popular destination for European whale-watchers, that I found my culinary Shangri-la.
There, at Hotel Aldeia da Fonte, a group of stone cottages built around an informal restaurant, the menu features all things Azorean: local cheese and wine, plenty of squid and octopus, hearty desserts such as honey pudding, aperitifs, even Azorean cigars.
The menu, as one would expect, offers a linguia appetizer and a linguia entree, and I ordered both. Estelle would have liked that.