Ahh… Madeira. I could wax lyrical about this island for hours! However, this week I’m writing about the food and drink of Madeira. The Madeira Archipelago is an autonomous region of Portugal, consisting of 4 islands lying off the north west coast of Africa. The island is closer to Morocco than to Portugal. The main island of Madeira is volcanic, green, rugged and extremely scenic. Known already for its Madeira wine and warm, sub tropical climate – the food and drink in Madeira warrants a special mention. Yes, there is a McDonald’s – in Funchal, the capital – and a Starbucks ( much to the islanders’ disgust) situated at Funchal airport. The thing is that Madeira’s soil is fertile and volcanic – the warm year round climate lends itself to producing a vast array of fruits, vegetables (especially garlic & sweet potatoes), sugarcane, wines, coffee – and its location in the North Atlantic Ocean …. the fish! And Madeira cuisine is absolutely delicious!
Bananas, bananas everywhere! The bananas grown are small and sweet. Alongside the different types of passionfruit, they are the main varieties of fruit you will come across in Madeira. Unfortunately in the UK we tend to see the larger bananas imported in from the West Indies or from West Africa.
MERCADO DOS LAVRADORES
The main marketplace for fruit, flowers and fish In Funchal is a “must see visit” on everybody’s tour list. It is a fully functioning market – the upper floor is full of fruit, vegetables and exotic flowers. The smells, colours, varieties are intoxicating! There are many strange and wonderful hybrid of fruits to try – such as banana-pineapple; passion-fruit pineapple; passionfruit-banana; lime passionfruit; peach-mango. Stall holders will try to entice you with samples of fruit to try. Beware though – it is rather pricey and you might find better prices in the smaller stalls outside of the main market. However, it is still worth a wander around – great for people watching and photo opportunities. It gets very crowded and, in summer, very hot. I prefer the cooler lower floor which houses the fantastic fish market. Yes, it is smelly but I don’t mind the fish smell. The range of fish on sale straight from the harbour is amazing – tuna, black scabbard fish, parrot fish, mackerel, castanets, limpets …
Castanets are small fish that are seasoned with salt & fried. Parrotfish is fried also – pay a visit to the Doca do Cavacas Restaurant in Funchal which has a reputation of cooking the best fried parrotfish on the island. Lapas or limpets are a slightly chewier version of clams. They are usually served in the frying pan they are cooked in. Tuna is extremely popular – tuna soup with noodles; raw in sashimi; tuna & onion stew; marinated tuna cooked with potatoes and chick peas; grilled tuna medium-rare steak; tuna steak with fried maize …. I must admit I was very surprised to see just how big tuna was! However, the ugly looking Black Scabbard fish – Peixe Espada Preto is divine. This is the fish you must try when visiting Madeira. It is grilled or lightly fried in a crumb batter and served in restaurants with a fried banana and a passion fruit sauce. It is better than it sounds, believe me! The sweet/savoury combination works well. As a snack though, try a black scabbard sandwich – a local favourite – tastes a bit like an upmarket fish finger sandwich!
Being an island, fish dishes do dominate however meat dishes are popular too – mainly pork and chicken. Estapada means food cooked on a skewer. In Madeira, wooden skewers are made from fragrant bay laurels, which season the meat as it cooks. Casseroles consisting of wine, garlic & pork are on every restaurant menu too. Garlic is widely used in Madeiran cooking – garlic oil, garlic cloves .
Vegetables grow in abundance on the island and the vegetarian dishes I have come across have been wholesome basic vegetable stews/ kebabs that are just as delicious as their meat counterparts. If you are a vegetarian that eats fish, then you have no trouble being well fed on this island!
Bolo de caco is Madeira’s regional bread, named after the caco or basalt stone slab that it is cooked on. The bread is extremely soft and is often served up in restaurants as a starter, with garlic butter.
Funchal (Madeira’s capital) literally means “The Place Where Fennel Grows” . This indigenous plant is especially found in the rocky mountains around Funchal. It is used for cooking, in the production of cough candy, in essential oils, tea and liqueurs.
The main dessert is Passion Fruit Pudding, using the various species of passionfruit available on the island. Passionfruit pudding is made with passionfruit pulp, jelly, condensed milk and cream. Tasting like a cross between a mousse and yogurt, it is a refreshing and flavoursome end to a meal. Fresh fruit salads are a healthier option, especially with the various fruit varieties available that the dish isn’t boring at all! Madeirans do have a sweet tooth, and a popular “cake” is the “Queijadas” made with cottage cheese, eggs and sugar.
Talking of cake, traditional Madeira Cake isn’t the yellow light sponge found in the UK. Authentic Madeira Cake, “Bolo De Mel” is a sticky dark honey cake, a bit like a British Christmas Pudding. Served in slices, it looks like a thick gooey tart and tastes divine. The Calheta Sugar Cane Mill is famous for the dark honey cake and walking past the kitchens where the cakes are made … well, the air is filled with the delicious aroma of molasses, alcohol, almonds … in fact, the whole sugar cane factory is enveloped with the smell. A giant cake is made every January , which is matured and freshly basted throughout the year, and is then ceremonially cut a year later. The cultivation of sugar cane was the first significant agricultural product in Madeira. The sugar cane is used to make molasses, dark honey, Madeira Cake, rum & the island drink, Poncha. The mill in Calheta is still a working factory, open all year round and visitors are welcome. There is a small museum, the mill itself, a shop and tasting area. Free entry and I have visited many times over the last few years – it is a lovely place to while away an afternoon.
Although not Madeiran in aspect, the Reid’s Hotel in Funchal has a tradition that goes back donkeys years – the afternoon tea, British style. Every afternoon, proper brewed tea served in dainty wedge wood china cups ( or champagne) is served along with scones, sandwiches, petit four and cake. It really is quite a civil affair and a dress code is rigidly applied – no shorts, flip flops or trainers. Famous celebrities that have stayed in this hotel are numerous and include George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Charlie Chaplin.
The Madeirans are great sponge cake bakers – I tried a delicious slab of homemade orange cake ( and some chocolate cake) at a cafe near the church and cable car station in Monte, washed down with local Madeiran coffee. In Calheta, the homemade apple pie and ice cream sprinkled with cinnamon was a delight. And, cheese lovers need not despair – the cheese courses in restaurants are alive and kicking with some of the best European cheeses you can imagine.
Like their Portuguese mainland counterparts, Madeirans do love their coffee. Unlike Italian coffee which is 100% Arabica beans, Portuguese coffee is a mixture of Arabica & Robusta beans. I was disappointed at first when my coffee with milk (Garoto) was served in a small espresso cup; but I soon discovered that asking for a Chinesa instead got me the same coffee with milk, but double the quantity in a larger teacup. All other styles of coffee, including cappuccino, espresso, iced coffee are available in the more touristy cafes in Funchal.
Brisa is a range of soft drinks produced and distributed in Madeira. A variety of flavours available include cola, cola light, cola zero, tonic water, orange, lemonade, apple, mango and, of course, passionfruit.
Madeira wine is one of the two fortified wines that Portugal is famous for – the other being Port. Unlike port, Which is stored and matured in a cold cellar, Madeira wine is stored in a warm place like an attic. The 4 most famous Madeira wines are Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, Malmsey.
Madeira produces some excellent table wines also, although not widely exported, they are well worth hunting out. There’s around 12 table wine producers in Madeira; 24 varieties of red, white & rose. The vineyard I visited was high up in the mountains above Sao Vicente on the north coast. The vineyard is small but oozes character, the producers are knowledgeable and they are rightly proud of the wines they produced. After a tour of the vineyard, I was able to taste the wines – all were good, hic! – and all had a touch of sea saltiness from the air and volcanic earthiness from the volcanic caves they were stored in.
If you like chocolate and cocktails, then you won’t be disappointed with a “Ginjinhas” – a strong cherry liqueur served in an edible chocolate cup. Cheers!
You can’t visit Madeira without trying PONCHA. Poncha is believed to have been inspired by an Indian drink called “panch”. Panch means 5 and was named because it is made from 5 ingredients: alcohol, sugar, lemon, water, tea or spices. Traditional Poncha consists of sugarcane rum, lemon juice, and honey mixed together with a wooden stick called a “caralhinho” – named for its distinctive male genital shape!! And is served without ice. Legend also has it that fishermen used Poncha has a remedy for sore throats when they disembarked from their ships. For tourists, Poncha is now available in various versions – Surinam cherry, passionfruit, tree tomato, tangerine, orange. I’m not sure whether it is a great remedy for a sore throat, but as a drink it is delightful. Best to drink some at a local rustic bar where it is made in front of you, of course. You can buy premixed Poncha in bottles at the airport and supermarkets, which are nice but a bit sweeter than the real mccoy.
I hope I’ve whetted your appetite! I know I’m craving for a slice of Madeira cake and a glass of Poncha now!