Alcatra and the Bovine Soul of an Island

Curiosity Magazine, July 19th, 2018

Alcatra and the Bovine Soul of an Island

Alcatra

Papa No Smile frowned fiercely as he laid out platters of grilled beef and chicken alongside salad and wine on the stone picnic table. An old man with a reputation for glowering at anyone who approached him, Papa No Smile could cook like a sweet angel, and the group of girls touring Terceira Island in the Azores Island chain didn’t let his gruff manner keep them from lunch.

Finally, almost as a last thought, Papa No Smile put down the pot of Alcatra. He lifted the lid of the reddish clay bowl, and the smell of slow-cooked roast seeped in port wine with allspice and other spices wafted up. I went for the alcatra, as I did the day before and the day before that.

No table, no meal on Terceira would be complete without alcatra on the Feast of the Holy Ghost. It’s as traditional as a roasted turkey on Thanksgiving in America or corn-husk rolled tamales at Christmas in Mexico and around Latin America.

Alcatra, though traditionally served as part of the religious holiday, is as much a part of life on Terceira as the thousands of cattle that make up this island’s major agricultural industry. The dish carries the taste of Terceira’s long, honored history with the bovine inhabitants.

Everything revolves around the cow. From the gigantic metal sculpture of raging bulls with big raging testicles that guard the entrance to the city of Angra do Heroísmo to the weekly running of the bulls through the city streets every spring through summer to the puzzle piece volcanic rock walls that quilt through the countryside, the soul of cattle are everywhere.

They are in the ghosts of the priests who drove bulls down Praia to force out the Spanish invaders. They are in the soft, pungent cheese made on the island, in the soft lovely brown eyes of curious milk cows that can stop traffic in the hills, and in the taste of succulent, tender, impossibly flavored bites of Alcatra.

Though becoming a tourist playground that offers hikes, watersports, and volcano and adventure tours, Terciera has more cows than people. Beef and dairy are the top industries on the island, yet not a single cow has seen the inside of a barn in the temperate hills of this island off of Portugal. They wander fat and relaxed along green volcanic hillsides, and even the dark “meat cows” live a happy life before their slaughter.

And in that steaming bowl of wine-soaked pot roast, the wild, pirate- and invader-riddled undefeatable spirit of the Portuguese who live here can be tasted in every single bite.

Only In Azores

While originally a dish that became a mandatory part of Easter Sunday and Functions of the Holy Spirit in Terceira, Alcatra is now offered in nearly every restaurant on Terceira. Cooked in red wine, the meat takes on a mahogany color, and variations of this dish are served on the other eight islands that make up the archipelago off of Portugal.

António José Paim Câmara, president of ProIslandTour-Passeios Turísticos Lda, says the tradition of Alcatra is believed to have started when the island of Terceira was settled around 1450 A.D. “The first settlers were from Beiras, in Trás-os-Montes, where there is a dish very similar to the Alcatra, which is the chanfana, made with goat’s meat,” Camara says. “At that time, the Alcatra with the best part of the animal was offered to the lords, leaving to the farmers the other less parts with bone. One day, at a meal with his laborers, one of the landlords noticed that the rump tasted better with the bone.”

Each parish in Terceira has its own recipe, he says, but the differences aren’t that vast. Some cooks use more seasonings, but allspice is the magic powder in every variation.

“The dish came about because people used to kill a cow to have food for the year,” Camara says. “Many parts of the animal were not good for steaks or other things, so they used the meat with bones and cooked it for several hours in a clay dish to make the unsuitable meat tasty and tender.”

Antonio is a tall fellow with a brush of sandy hair and a big wide smile. Like many of the other residents of Terceira, a note of fondness and pride weaves around his words when he talks about the island’s bovine inhabitants. As he escorted us around the island in a 4×4 Land Rover, he rattled off the history of his homeland. When a roaming herd of cattle blocked the road heading east toward Praia da Vitoria, he calmly let the lumbering, slow-strolling animals go by.

“Look! We are caught in a traffic jam,” he joked.

Everywhere we drove, the caramel brown or black and white spotted cows were as plentiful as the little rock walls that quilted the countryside. When we stopped to take photos, the cows pressed curiously towards us, their big brown eyes flanked with the eyelashes of flirty girls. The dairy cows are milked twice a day in the fields, and the Azoreans are strict about the quality of milk and how the producers are fed. Tests and more tests are done randomly on all milk because Terceira has a reputation to uphold.

Terceira is also known as a cheese island. Most of those happy cows create cheese that’s semi-soft or slightly hard, the texture creamy and the flavor sharp. Most of breakfasts I ate on Terceira featured different types of island cheese accompanied by locally-produced yogurt and sunshine-colored rich butter. Another soft, white cheese called queijo fresco is usually offered up during lunch and dinners.

According to the National Dairy Industry Association, the Azores dairy production represented 50 percent of the total Portuguese cheese production in 2016, making about 26,000 tons of cheese. The Azores also provided 75 percent of the total Portuguese production of powdered milk and 31 percent of total cow milk.

Invest in Azores says the reason Azorean dairy is in such high demand is the fact that cattle graze during every month of the year, yielding a higher nutritional and dietary value of milk. The roaming and open lifestyle of Terceira’s cows are in deep contrast from the dairy cows of the United Kingdom, where most are kept indoors for part or all of the year.

Even as Antonio joked, the fondness he has for the livestock was apparent. He talked a little sadly about the dark cattle that would eventually become the meat for dishes like Alcatra, but even they live a peaceful life of open grazing in hills so temperate barns have no use.

On this island, cattle reign, outnumbering the roughly 55,000 humans by two to one, according to Invest in Azores. With that many cattle, it’s no surprise that a few of them become heroes, too.

The Hoofed Heroes

On July 25, 1581, the bulls that roamed the volcanic hills above Angra do Heroísmo changed the history of Terceira by playing an essential role in defending the island in the fight for the independence of Portugal.

Because of its location in the Atlantic Ocean, the Azores archipelago was not only an important port, but a juicy prize for pirates, world powers, and warring countries. Portugal just wanted to be Portugal, but Spain had different ideas.

A battle of succession was underway, with D. Antonio, Prior of Crato, taking refuge in Terceira, the only place in all of Portugal and Spain that supported him. He was backed by the Anglo-French troops stationed on the island. The Spanish were not happy. Philip II sent his army to defeat D. Antonio’s supporters, and this is where history and legend get a little blurred.

On the morning of July 25, 1581, a Spanish squadron led by Pedro de Valdes stormed the Azorean Island. With 10 ships – eight of which were galleons with 1,000 soldiers – he took the Bay of Salga by surprise, overcoming the resistance and imprisoning the men.

One of those men was Bartolomeu Lourenco, the husband of Brianda Pereira. By 9 a.m., the battle was fierce and the Spanish soldiers were swept to the coast. The defenders of Terceira, encouraged by the angry wife, were in a tough spot, but the religious Augustin Frei Pedra had an idea.

Using shouts and a musket shot, he and others led more than 1,000 angry cattle and bulls down from the mountains and onto the beach, barreling them into the Spanish army. The raging mass of hooves and horns was too much, and hundreds of Spanish died in the fighting or drowned in their flight from the animals.

Legend says no more than 50 Spaniards survived to escape to their ships, and Brianda Pereira rallied the locals to fight to the end. For two years, the Azoreans fought for their independence. A famous letter from Cyprian of Figueiredo, corregedor of the Azores, to Philip II stated the Portuguese would “Rather die free than in peace subjugated.” That statement remains the motto of the Azores today.

Terceira was eventually conquered by the Spanish in 1583, where some records show that 60 percent of the population was massacred. Because Angra was such an important port for the Spanish, Philip II ordered that a great castel be built on Mount Brazil, which was called St. Philip’s Castle, but now known as St. John Baptist. The greatest Philippine fortress in the world, the castle still stands today to defend the bay, but in a nod to history, some of the cannons still point inland toward the town.

“Third-degree bravery became the brand image of the island,” Antonio says. “Our coat of arms has two chained black bulls on it, and it reminds us of the role of the brave cattle that fought that day.”

Touradas à Corda–Running of the Bulls

Walking into a local shop in Angra, my eye caught a video screen showing a massive black bull raging through a throng of men who were inexplicably running toward the bull, not away. On occasion, the animal lowered its head, catching some poor unfortunate soul under the bum, tossing him as easily in the air as if he were a second thought.

The man somersaulted through the street and landed on the stone sidewalk –hard. Over and over, the video showed the same thing – a bull rampaging and tossing some regrettable fellow.

“My god, what is this?” I asked.

“That’s the touradas,” the shop owner said. “It’s very dangerous. People are killed every year.”

Nearly every weekend each summer, Terceira lets the mighty bull loose on the streets for the summer bullfights, but in the spirit of the islanders’ love of their animals, the bull is never killed. In fact, no bull is ever killed in a bullfight in all of Portugal, but the same cannot be said of the participants.

The touradas à corda, or “running of the bulls,” is a unique style of running with the bulls. The bull is let loose in the streets with a long rope around its neck, and it is guided by several experienced bull handlers. In the main square of a village or along the seafront, hundreds of brave men try to get as close to the bull as they dare before it is taken back to a crate and the weekend’s festivities begin. Sometimes they use umbrellas to lure or distract the bulls, and the sight of a lone man facing down an angry beast with only an umbrella as a shield is heart stopping.

The running of the bulls on a rope is only found in the Azores and has been popular since the 16th Century, according to Antonio. The neighboring islands of São Jorge and Graciosa have bullfights also, but nowhere near the number Terceira, which boasted of 256 bullfights from April first to October 15 last year, has. No other island uses the rope guides.

In the larger cities like Angra do Heroísmo, an equestrian bullfight follows in the arena, where a caveleiro, or rider, faces the bull atop a Lusitano breed of horse. The goal of man and horse is to charge at the bull and place a single dart in the bull’s back, swerving away to ride off unscathed.

“The bulls are treated very well. The bull owner wants to make sure his animals are healthy and well presented and also fit, because those things – and a bad temper – are the only way it will get requested by the people for their bullfights,” Antonio says. The more requested a bull is, the more money the owner can get for it to run.

The shows starts at 6:30 p.m. in the summer, but the party starts early in the morning with the choosing of bulls. Picnics and music accompany the ritual, and fans can play with little bulls in the “tentaderos” of the cattlemen.

A few hours before the bullfight, the four chosen bulls are placed in wooden crates and transported to the site of the run in a caravan decorated by hydrangeas. When the bull is released, the “capinhas” use umbrellas and sweaters to “throw a step” at the bull, causing the animal to charge. Anyone can risk “playing” with the bull, just for the sake of it, since there are no paid capinhas, but the consequences can be savage.

“There is an injury almost every bullfight, and every year, there is a death, sometimes more,” Antonio says. “The free health care on the island does not cover the injuries at the bullfights.”

In the intervals between each bull, the population takes advantage of snacks and food at the canteen trucks, and at the end, the party continues in the streets with food, drink and music, something locals call “the fifth bull.”

Making Alcatra

“I cook Alcatra for every barbecue lunch we do now for the tours,” Antonio says when I ask him if he could introduce me to a chef on the island who could share a recipe. “If you need me to get someone from a restaurant, I might be able to, but he will not make it any better than mine.”

“Here’s how I cook my Alcatra,” Antonio says. “The secret besides the recipe is that when a new bowl is purchased, it must be prepared before it is used to make the Alcatra for the first time in order to prevent it from popping and giving bad taste to the food.”

The new clay bowl must be left in cold water for three to four days and then allowed to dry overnight. Once dry, rub the inside of the bowl with butter or lard. A piece of bacon or some bones are then put into the bowl and covered with a scented wine like strawberry or the traditional white wine produced on Terceira.

The bowl with the sauce is placed in the oven at the same time that the oven is turned on so the temperature is the same, preventing the cracking of the bowl. Once the sauce comes to a boil, the oven is turned off, but the bowl remains until completely cool.

“Dump the sauce and pass the bowl under warm water, without using detergent. Wipe dry with a clean cloth,” Antonio says. “From here, the bowl is ready to cook.”

As we sit under the looming trees of a park on the northern side of the island eating Alcatra and sipping Terceira wine, I wonder how many Alcatras the clay bowl before me had cooked. I would have asked Papa No Smile, but he lumbered off to smoke cigarettes and stare out grumpily at the forest. Maybe he was reminiscing of the days he too ran with the bulls.

In the end, it doesn’t matter. The taste of the wine-soaked roast lingered well after lunch, and as we drove away, I could swear I saw Papa No Smile crack a tiny grin as he ate his share.

Antonio’s Alcatra

Ingredients

1/2 liter of red wine

8.3 lbs of meat with bone

10.5 oz of smoked bacon

4 large onions

1 tablespoon of lard

1 tablespoon butter with salt

Allspice to taste

Salt to taste

Preparation

Cut the meat into cubes. Chop the onion and cut the bacon into small bites. If you don’t have a clay pot, use a pot that can be baked well with lard.

In the bottom of the pot, place the lard, bacon, a layer of meat, butter, a layer of onion, the salt and allspice, another layer of meat and end with a layer of onion. Wash the layers with wine, without covering the whole pan.

Cook on low heat for roughly three to four hours.

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