Madeira, called “the pearl of the Atlantic,” is hidden away in the ocean 900 km south of Lisbon and almost 600 km west of Casablanca. The island’s cuisine is completely different from that of Portugal, its mother country, with dishes that are a unique blend of earth and sea.
Emerging from the waves and rising to 1800 meters above sea level, Madeira offers delicious cuisine, presented on terraces and patios, and produced by a volcanic soil in which flowers and fruits grow like weeds. The crops are sometimes planted in such narrow strips that they look like giant steps, while others are planted on the sides of cliffs with dizzyingly steep paths. Banana plantations like the sea mist and occupy the lowest 200 meters, giving way to grape vines at 300 to 400 meters.
Defining Madeiran cuisine involves drawing a picture of a people’s eating habits. The food is simple, yet generous and delicious.
Madeirans always have one eye on the sea and love to go up into the mountains on Sundays or holidays to have a barbecue amid the pine and eucalyptus forests. They always carry along a little coarse salt, a few cloves of garlic and olive oil. They know all the good butchers and grocers in the region and stop by the village for a piece of lombo, or loin, the best and most tender cut of beef, to prepare brochettes (espetadas) on bay branches that they grill outside in the open air. Friends, acquaintances and family members head to the trails and if they notice the scent of a grapevine fire, they stop by – so that any simple barbecue can suddenly become a party.
There are also dedicated stops such as Mirador del Portola or La Casa de Abrigo do Poiso for having coffee or soup. There you can taste the best tomato soup in the island, a reduction of tomatoes and onions cooked without water, topped with a slice of bread and a poached egg.
The whole coast is lined with cliffs, but in even the tiniest inlets and bays you’ll find fishing villages where blue, red and yellow boats are sitting out on the shore to dry. Though every fisherman goes out in search of swordfish, dorado, red mullet, perch and bream, those from Machico and other villages along the island’s eastern tip specialize in tuna fishing. But it’s the fishermen of Camara de Lobos who have secured the renown of the local gastronomy by dropping their weighted lines 3000 meters deep to attract the espada, a fish unique to the volcanic abyss, with enormous eyes, razor-sharp teeth and a body shaped like a sword.
However don’t be misled: even though the Portuguese word “espada” means “sword,” this is not the same species as the swordfish of other regions. Whatever its name, this fish is delicious and meltingly tender. Among the various ways it can be prepared are “à la délicia” with bananas, with sliced passion fruit, rolled and served on seafood bisque, stuffed, or simply grilled.
The island inhabitants are good bakers: just try some warm “bolo de caco” or sweet potato bread. To finish your meal, you won’t be able to resist the wonderful fruit-based desserts and creamy custards (such as crème caramel with Madeira), but above all, don’t leave the island without a honey cake, a recipe dating back to the days when Madeira was a major sugar producer. It’s the oldest dessert on the island, a dark, almost black disk no more than two inches high, traditionally made for Christmas.
A Madeiran meal begins with a glass of dry Madeira wine and ends with a sweet or semi-sweet Madeira. The men of the island say that wine is meant for drinking, not cooking, but mothers and grandmothers always have some on hand that can “accidentally” drop into a sauce or soup.
Though the local cooking is made up in large part of grilled meats, soups and bread products, there is an ongoing quest for flavor, texture and subtle combinations. I have wonderful memories and mouthwatering images of the places and restaurants I visited: the huge checkerboard herb gardens of the Savoy; the chef coming out to pick avocados and zucchini whose climbing vines were taking over the arbors of the Quinta Palmeira; the little red pitangas (Surinam cherries), so shiny that they look almost waxed, at the Faja dos Padres plantation; and everywhere flowers, endless flowers… the pale pink blossoms of the banana trees, the white-rimmed mauve flowers of the passion fruit, thousands of nasturtiums that fill the ditches along mountain roads, and the captivating perfume of the eucalyptus, whose flavor has been captured in local candies. Madeira is a feast for the eyes…. and the heart!
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