Given its proximity to Terceira, it is believed that the Portuguese navigators discovered São Jorge Island along with the other islands that surround it. As the second island to be inhabited in the Central Group, it is believed that it started to be populated around 1460. A decade later, several settlements were already established on the western and southern coasts, including in Velas. The arrival of the Flemish noble Wilhelm Van der Haegen marks the foundation of the Topo community in the east end of the island.
In 1483, the captaincy of São Jorge Island, which was developing rapidly, was given to João Vaz Corte Real, who was at the time the captain of Angra do Heroísmo on Terceira Island. A town charter was awarded to Velas at the end of 15th century, a status that was also extended to Topo in 1510 and to Calheta in 1534. The prosperity of the island came from wheat, but from early on the island also stood out for the quality of its pastures.
Left to a certain isolation due to the lack of safe ports, São Jorge Island progressively lost its economic influence. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the island was visited by the unwelcome English and French privateers, as well as by the ruthless Turkish and Algerian pirates. The Du-Gray-Trouin incursion in Velas in 1708 became famous. Defeated by the people’s heroic resistance, the French corsair left São Jorge Island with many casualties in his crew.
From the 16th to the 19th centuries, the inhabitants’ lives were hit by agricultural crisis, which caused food scarcity, and by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, which caused great destruction. Similarly to other islands, the economy was based on agriculture and cattle breeding, namely on wheat and vineyards, on the extraction of orchil, and on livestock that from early on generated important secondary sectors linked to cheese and wool. The fishing industry became important between the end of the 19th and the 20th century, first through whaling, and since the 1960s, through the fishing of tuna. Currently, the excellent quality of the pastures of São Jorge has become evident in the production of the island’s typical cheese made from raw cow’s milk. São Jorge Cheese is a protected designation of origin, and the island is a demarcated region for its production. The island’s airport and the modern ports of Velas and Calheta have contributed to the full integration of São Jorge Island into the Azores Archipelago and into the world.
With a length of 54 km and a maximum width of 6.9 km, São Jorge Island features a long volcanic ridge stretching from northwest to southeast. The area of the island reaches 243.9 sq. km, and it is the home to 9.171 inhabitants (2011 data). The island of São Jorge is part of the Central Group and is one of the corners of the so-called “triangle islands” together with Faial and Pico, the latter of which is 18.5 km away. At an altitude of 1,053 m, Pico da Esperança is the highest point of the island and is located at 38°39’02” north latitude and 28°04’27” west longitude.
FOOD AND DRINKS
Internationally famous and with a so-called insurmountable taste, the São Jorge Island Cheese is probably the most well-known food product of the Azores. The União de Cooperativas Agrícolas e Lacticínios de São Jorge in the parish of Beira works as a plant for the aging, classification and certification processes of the cheese produced all over the island. The Protected Designation of Origin is only awarded to the specimens that follow the traditional ingredients and methods. It is believed that the production of cow’s milk cheese goes back to the Flemish that populated Topo. The São Jorge Island Cheese is hard/semi-hard and has a slightly peppery aftertaste. It is round-shaped and weights from 7 to 12 kg, being cut in wedges.
Spontaneously born and raised in the lagoon of the Caldeira de Santo Cristo Nature Reserve and Special Ecological Area, the clams are another exclusive food wonder of São Jorge Island. The lagoon of this fajã is the only place in the Azores where there are clams, which stand out for their size, flavour and meaty texture. The harvest of clams is limited and this delicacy can only be enjoyed in some restaurants.
The microclimate of some fajãs enabled the growing of some rarities, such as the coffee tree, a rare case in Europe. In Fajã dos Vimes one can enjoy coffee of intense taste and aroma, made out of locally collected grains. Just as the coffee, the cinnamon aguardente is good to complement the taste of the island’s pastry, of which coscorões, rosquilhas and curd cakes are part of the traditional recipes. The espécie, a horseshoe-shaped pastry with “windows” through which one can peek at its filling, is another typical pastry of the island. There are several versions of this recipe, but the use of spices, such as anise, cinnamon and pepper, is common to every one of them.
The festivity in honour of the saint after which the island is named (St. George) takes place on 23 April. In the municipality of Velas, the celebrations include a procession, musical shows and exhibitions.
The Semana Cultural das Velas (Velas Cultural Week) enlivens São Jorge Island, as well as the other “triangle islands,” during the month of July. Its programme comprises lectures, conferences, a book fair, nautical events, musical shows, a cuisine fair, in short, appealing events for every taste, turning Velas into a quite lively place. In the same month of July, Calheta suggests the Festival de Julho (July Festival), a festival full of ethnographical parades, popular music, sports events and exhibitions.
The processions that occur in several fajãs embody the religious devotion, holding hands with folk festivities where popular songs are played in the traditional guitar called viola da terra.
The Holy Ghost festivals mobilise people from the island and from the outside and take place between May and September as in the other islands.