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Sao Miguel--This Atlantic Island Is a Natural Pressure Cooker for Chefs, Engineers

December 20, 1987|COLIN McSEVENY | Reuters

FURNAS, Azores — "Wrap the meat or fowl in a cloth, place in freshly dug hole, cover with earth and leave to bake for about five hours," explains hotelier Mario Oliveira in classic cookbook parlance.

Such a recipe would normally raise questions about its author's state of mind, but not on Sao Miguel where chefs and engineers alike tap the volcanic energy of this verdant Atlantic island.

Like the rest of the Portuguese Azores archipelago, Sao Miguel sits on one of the thinnest and newest parts of the earth's crust and Furnas provides some of the most graphic reminders of its volatile origins.

This spa resort lies amid a humid valley of sooty lava rocks, steaming pools of foul-smelling sulfurous water and dried mud as hot as an oven just below the surface.

'Volcano-Style' Cooking

On weekends the roadsides are dotted with what look like giant molehills, but, in fact, cover assorted chickens, meat joints, fish and vegetables as locals and tourists cook "volcano-style."

"The ground is extremely hot and full of steam which filters through the cloth, gently cooking the ingredients and leaving the unique Furnas flavor," Oliveira said.

Locals and many visitors are also convinced that food cooked in the soil is extra-rich in the minerals found in the nearby thermal springs that have drawn wealthy rheumatics to Furnas since the last century.

"My own favorite is cod. No other cooking method leaves it quite so tasty," said Isilda Lopes whose family, like many on the island, picnics regularly during the summer when the persistent rains finally give way to a few months of sun.

A few miles to the west, thermal engineer Luis Gomes is also probing the ground--though he has already had lunch.

"We are basically standing on a vast pressure cooker. Just as food can be cooked at the depth of one yard, dig further down and you reach a far stronger source of energy," he said as clouds of steam hissed from a pilot geothermal plant.

$32-Million Plan

The first stage of the $32-million plant, backed by the U.S. giant General Electric and a local consortium, has been completed and the Azores regional government hopes the station will supply almost half the island's electricity by 1991.

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