Madeira is the perfect location for anyone who enjoys good, traditional food and drink. You’ll find simple but carefully prepared dishes using fresh local ingredients, succulent tropical fruits and, of course, the famous Madeira wine. Read on for some of the best Madeira food and drink.
Traditional Madeira Food
Madeira is a mountainous island whose main industries are tourism, agriculture and fishing. So it is hardly surprising that Madeiran cuisine should be predominantly based upon fish, vegetables and fruit. However, you will also find meat on the menu. Local specialities include espetada (beef steak cut up and cooked kebab style) and wild rabbit.
Fish And Seafood
Every menu features espada (black scabbard fish). This is unique to Madeira, although you may occasionally find it in restaurants on the Portuguese mainland. It is generally cooked with banana or passion fruit, or sometimes with shrimps. The restaurants and guidebooks will assure you that this is a traditional Madeiran recipe; however I am told that the locals eat the fish much more simply, with just a dash of lemon!
Other local fish include tuna and parrot fish. You will also find Portuguese bacalhau (salted cod). Most seafood is imported, although locally caught limpets appear on many menus.
Fruit And Vegetables
Madeira has seven distinct micro-climates and a rich volcanic soil. This allows an enormous variety of fruit and vegetables to be grown. As you travel around the island you will see trees laden with custard apples, avocados and many other tropical and semi-tropical fruits.
However, the main crops are bananas, grapes and sugar cane. Bananas come in different varieties, and are found everywhere. Grapes are mostly used by the wine industry, and the sugar cane produces rum and cane honey.
Desserts And Honey Cake
As you might expect, fresh tropical fruits – either raw or cooked – are prominent on dessert menus. However, you should also try the traditional honey cake (bolo de mel). Dating back to the 15th century, this is a rich mixture of sugar cane syrup, fruit and nuts, tasting a little like a Christmas pudding.
Incidentally, if you are looking for madeira cake, you won’t find it here. This was a British invention, designed to accompany Madeira wine.
Eating Out In Madeira
The majority of restaurants serve local Madeiran cuisine, and you may notice a certain similarity between their menus. However, Funchal also has some Italian and Japanese restaurants, and a few places offering other cuisines. You’ll find a greater variety in the restaurants aimed at tourists in the hotel zone of west Funchal.
I was surprised at the quality of the food on offer in almost everywhere I ate. My best meals were at places that looked uninspiring at first, most notably the Pátio das Babosas in the Monte area of Funchal, and A Espiga in Santana on the north of the island.
You will often get the best value, and the most authentic food, by asking for the prato do dia (dish of the day), which is likely to be a choice of meat or fish. Menus are always written in Portuguese and English, and frequently also in several other languages.
Vegetarians And Vegans
It has to be said that vegetarians and vegans are not always well catered for. Some restaurants only offer meat and fish; others have one vegetarian option (often pasta, although I did have a rather good tofu dish in one place). In practice you might find it easier to eat in one of the Italian restaurants.
I had hoped to be able to recommend Olives, in the centre of Funchal, which has an extensive vegetarian and vegan menu. Unfortunately, however, this proved to be my most disappointing meal in Madeira: the service was incredibly slow, and I didn’t get what I ordered…
Exploring The Food Market
Food lovers should be sure to explore the Mercado dos Lavradores (“Worker’s Market”) in Funchal. This impressive building, on two floors and decorated with tiled panels, is full of what seems like every imaginable fruit and vegetable, as well as flowers, meats and spices. The whole place is a feast of colour, and you’ll even see some stallholders in traditional Madeiran costume.
If you visit early in the morning you can walk around the adjoining fish market and watch freshly landed scabbard fish, tuna and parrot fish being prepared for sale. Then stop in one of the cafés or speciality food shops around the edge of the market.
What To Drink In Madeira
The main drinks produced on the island are Madeira wine and sugar cane rum. Most other drinks are imported, although you will find some local fruit liqueurs.
The majority of the grapes grown here are used to make Madeira wine, with four different grapes producing wine of various sweetness (Sercial is the driest, and Malvasia – or malmsey – is the sweetest). Madeira is a fortified wine, like sherry or port, but what makes it unique is the way it is exposed to heat as it ages.
You can learn about Madeira wine and enjoy a tasting at several locations. I took a tour at Blandy’s Wine Lodge, perhaps the best known wine company in Funchal. Other wineries offer similar tours: one popular choice is Henriques & Henriques, in the small town of Câmara de Lobos, to the west of Funchal.
Until about 35 years ago there were no table wines produced in Madeira. However, more recently some different grape types have been planted, enabling a small amount of production.
In practice most of the table wines that you can buy in restaurants and supermarkets are imported. Look out for Portuguese vinho verde (“green wine”), a young wine with a fresh flavour.
Aguardente De Cana
A very popular local drink is aguardente de cana, or sugar cane rum. This is a clear, strong spirit produced by the distillation of sugar cane syrup.
If you are in Porto da Cruz, in the northeast of Madeira, don’t miss the historic Engenhos do Norte distillery. Here the rum is produced in the traditional way, using steam-driven machinery. During the harvest months of March to May you can watch the machines in action; at other times the distillery becomes a museum.
Everywhere you go you will see bars advertising poncha. This is a potent cocktail of aguardente de cana, honey and lemon juice (other fruits may sometimes be used). It is very easy to drink – be prepared to resist the temptation to keep going back for more!
You can buy bottles of poncha in the supermarkets, but these are vastly inferior to the drinks prepared by bartenders, carefully mixed with a specially designed wooden paddle known as a mexelote.