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This Secret Portuguese Cheese Island Is What Heaven Looks Like

There are more cows than people on Terceira, a tiny island in the Portuguese Azores archipelago. Cattle graze all year round on rolling green hills, producing some of the most delicious dairy known to man.

It's impossible to talk about Terceira Island without mentioning cows. One of the nine mid-Atlantic islands making up the Portuguese Azores archipelago, Terceira famously has more bovine inhabitants than human ones. As my plane comes in to land at its tiny Lages airport, I see an endless patchwork of fields, covered with black-and-white Holstein cattle munching happily away.

There's a notable lack of farm buildings and cattle sheds—just fields and free-roaming dairy cows. The temperate climate on the sub-tropical island, some 1,000 miles from Lisbon, means that the cattle live a year-round outdoor lifestyle, and their almost exclusively grass-based diet makes for some of the best dairy products in Europe.

Curious cattle peek over the fences surrounding the airport, and as my Airbnb host Paulo drives me the short distance to his home in the town of Vila Nova, he is forced to stop several times to allow processions of cows to pass by.

Cheese wheels on Terceira Island in the Portuguese Azores. Photo courtesy Visit Azores.

"Terceira is all about dairy farming," he tells me. "It's a paradise for cows, and it's a paradise for people who love cheese, too—we eat cheese at pretty much every meal."

To prove this point, he brings a round of cheese for me to try. Less than half an hour after landing on Terceira, I'm already tucking in—cutting through the yellowish, edible crust to reveal a semi-soft white centre with a creamy texture but a mature cheese kick. There are many cheese producers on Terceira, and Paulo tells me this one is produced by Quinta dos Açores, a company that began life in the 1970s with 25 cows and two bulls, and has grown to become one of the largest dairy producers on the archipelago.

It's a tasty introduction to this land of many cheeses, and is to be the first of many delicious dairy experiences. Breakfasts here typically include a small glass jar filled with locally produced yogurt, along with crusty bread served thick with rich, yellow butter. Morning coffee is made with plentiful steamed milk. Lunch and dinner are preceded by sweet cornbread, served with queijo fresco—a light, soft white cheese—and a fresh pepper sauce called pimenta da terra. Ice creams made with full-fat milk and cheese are the desserts of choice.

In short, Terceira is the ultimate test of willpower for any faltering vegan.

Jersey cows grazing on the island. Photo courtesy Queijo Vaquinha.

But visiting the island is somewhat disorientating. The green rolling hills and agricultural community make it feel like stepping onto a remote Scottish island or into an episode of Emmerdale, until you catch a glimpse of swaying palm trees or the massive waves crashing dramatically over the black volcanic coastline. A faint smell of manure hangs permanently in the air, and you're never more than a few metres away from a mooing local.

The dairy-obsessed island extends for little over 150 square miles, the vast majority of which is given over to cattle-rearing. I spot the occasional raggedy sheep and a few goats, but most of the animals that roam the island are Holstein cows.

The Terceira agricultural model is in stark contrast to the UK, where intense competition and a push for higher milk yields means many dairy cows are kept indoors their entire lives. Some 15 to 20 percent of British cows never get to graze, according to Free Range Dairy.

On Terceira Island, the dairy cattle graze year-round, which explains why there are scarcely any barns or farm buildings—the cows are always out at pasture. Fields are roughly separated by low dry-stone walls built from volcanic rock, and farmers rotate their cows at regular intervals to ensure that they don't overfeed or over-trample in any one area.

This free-range lifestyle means there are no milking sheds. Portable milking machines are an Azores innovation, and have been an essential part of Terceira dairy farming for over 30 years. Cheap to build and capable of milking up to 12 cattle at a time, these mobile milkers consist of a chassis with two wheels that can be hooked onto a tractor, or even a horse, and the cows are milked at pasture.

The largest cheese producer on Terceira is Vaquinha ("little cow"), whose much-loved wheels are consumed by visiting tourists and locals alike, and shipped out to appreciative customers on the Portuguese mainland and overseas. The factory in Angra do Heroismo—the island's capital—is open to visitors, who can peep through a window to see the vast piles of cheese wheels and visit the tasting room.

João Henrique Melo Cota, the current owner of Vaquinha, started out as a cattle farmer supplying Jersey cows' milk to the company's small-scale producers. This was unusual on the island, as Jerseys are in a minority.

Inside the Vaquinha cheese factory Angra do Heroismo, Terceira's capital. Photo courtesy Queijo Vaquinha.

"The production scale was so small that the cheese was in danger of disappearing, the producer was about to retire and had no family to carry on his project," he tells me. "I suggested we start a partnership and in 1998, we opened our first cheese factory but it was a long way from where we are today in terms of quality control."

Several investments later, Vaquinha reopened in a new, permanent factory in 2002, and its strong, mature, and peppery cheeses have become the stuff of local legend. Cota has extended the range to include mature and semi-mature rounds that are aged for up to two months, as well as a chili-spiced block which kicks like a mule.

Photo courtesy Queijo Vaquinha.

Sitting down at an outdoor table to enjoy slabs of Queijo Vaquinha on thick, fresh bread with a strong local coffee and a fresh sea breeze is more or less obligatory for any culinarily curious visitor to Terceira, but it's just the tip of a particularly tasty iceberg. Everywhere you go, there's cheese: soft, mild cheeses that melt away when you take a bite, strong, Cheddar-like cured cheeses such as Vaquinha, and mild but firm amanteigada ("buttery") cheeses.

Small-scale cheese producers sell their wares at markets, corner shops, and cafes across the island, and it's hard not to get carried away with the cheese-buying. In fact, I find myself having to wear most of the clothes I packed for my trip in order to make space for the various blocks I've jammed into my cabin-size luggage.

I'll be back—and next time I'll bring a bigger suitcase.