As you might expect from a subtropical island, there is plenty of fresh fish and seafood and a plethora of exotic fruit and vegetables. I discovered some delicious cakes and a new-found appreciation for Madeira wine.
Read on to find out what to eat and drink in Madeira.
Scabbard fish with Madeiran banana
If you see scabbard fish (peixe espada) in the market or fish counter, you will be put off by its sheer ugliness. Thankfully, it’s usually served as a fillet and often accompanied by the small, dense and flavourful bananas that grow on Madeira. I was sceptical about the combination but it works.
Espetada – steak skewers
You’ll find this meat dish on pretty much every restaurant menu but not all espetadas are created equal. Despite the showy presentation – they are served from a long metal dangling from a hook – the first one that Dori and I tried was disappointing to say the least. As we munched our way through small cubes of slightly chewy steak, we wondered what all the fuss was about.
Luckily, I got a recommendation from a local for the best espetada restaurant in Madeira so we vowed to give it another chance. O Polar restaurant is high above the Câmara de Lobos harbour so you’d need a car or taxi to get there. It’s a simple restaurant that serves either espetada or grilled chicken. All the tables are fitted with the hooks for dangling the skewers and you order your meat by weight – the servers will advise how much you need.
From where we were sitting, I could see the kitchen and watched skilled hands select, weigh and slice a lean chunk of beef then thread it onto the skewer before placing it on the charcoal grill.
Cakes from Madeira
You’ll see the dark, circular bolo de mel de cana in many places throughout the island. This is often translated as honey cake but it’s made from dark sugar cane molasses, aka treacle, hence the deep colour and strong flavour. You’ll find a few nuts and sultanas in it and although it’s a rather dry cake, it’s quite rich so you won’t need much of it and it lasts for ages.
Taste this and many other Madeira flavours on a scrumptious food tour in Funchal
I also tried the scrumptious and filling tarte folhada de requeijão (cottage cheese pastry). Essentially, it’s flaky pastry filled with a thick cream cheese paste which is sweet without being sickly.
Also on the cheesy side, the popular queijada (cheesecake) is nothing like what Brits or Americans might be expecting on hearing the word cheesecake. I have no picture of the one I ate but it’s a circular case of thin pastry filled with a fairly solid but not too heavy cheesy concoction.
Broa de mel are small round biscuits made with treacle and cinnamon. Again, they have a distinctive flavour but are crisp and light and last for months. They don’t weigh much and travel well so if you have room in your case, bring some home.
Bolo de caco flatbread
Wherever you are in Madeira, you’re bound to notice the local bread, bolo de caco. Another flat circular offering, this time unleavened and made from wheat flour. Bolo de caco is typically served toasted and oozing with melted garlic butter and parsley. It also makes tasty sandwiches.
I was delighted to discover that our closest bakery and café sells wonderful pumpkin seed bread (pão de abóbora). If you get the chance to pop into a branch of Sésamo in Funchal, try it for yourself.
Strange fruit from Madeira island
Fruit is where Madeira food comes into its own. We wandered into the market in Funchal to admire the colourful displays. Within moments, we were approached by a stallholder and offered samples of some very strange fruit.
I like passion fruit but had no idea it came in so many varieties. I think we tried six in total including banana passion fruit and apple passion fruit. The weirdest fruit of all was the banana pineapple. It has a scaly green skin and chunky white flesh that tastes exactly like a cross between its two namesakes.
Tip: If you do decide to buy some fruit to take away, shop around for prices and try bargaining a little. Don’t be afraid to say no, either. When I discovered that one custard apple was going to cost us almost 11 euros, I decided that no fruit was worth that price and handed it back.
What to drink in Madeira
The local lager, Coral, has been brewed on Madeira since 1872 and is usually served in a ballooned glass (uma balão). It’s more flavoursome and easier to drink than mainland Portugal’s most famous brands, Sagres and Superbock. Slightly darker and less gassy, Coral tastes stronger than it is (5.3% ABV).
Madeira is more famous for its distinctive wine. Back in the Age of Discovery when explorers roamed the oceans searching for new lands and opening trade routes, wine was one of the island’s main exports. Grape spirits were added to the wine to prevent it from spoiling during long journeys but the return of an unsold consignment led to a happy revelation.
During the trip, the wine had been exposed to high temperatures for extended periods of time which had actually improved its flavour. Since then, wine producers have been artificially recreating those conditions by heating the wine to around 60°C. The resulting wine can be sweet or dry. We tried a dry wine but preferred the darker medium sweet.
Want to get to know Madeira wines better? Try this Madeira Wine Day Trip
Bright orange poncha is another ubiquitous drink from Madeira. The original version (ask for regional) is made from a sugar cane spirit, honey, sugar, lemon rind and either lemon juice or a mixture of orange and lemon.
We tried it at Taberna da Serra d’Agua, a tiny bar decorated with hundreds of business cards and with peanut shells littering the floor.
My stomach doesn’t cope well with spirits so I was a bit wary but found the poncha fruity and refreshing and neither too strong or too sweet. You can get many different varieties these days, with tangerine and passion fruit juice or using other spirits such as vodka but it’s worth sampling the traditional version if you can.
If you’re serious about sampling some of the best food and drink in Madeira, you could consider this Scrummy 3-hour Wine and Food Tour of Funchal.
Madeira guide books and maps
Guide books for Portugal rarely go into any detail about the Madeira islands so you should consider buying a dedicated book.
Take a look at these via Amazon:
DK Eyewitness have thought of almost everything in their guide to the Top 10 (gardens, beaches, museums, walks etc.) Top 10 Madeira (Eyewitness Top 10 Travel Guide).
If, like me, your interests centre around food and walking, this guidebook may fit the bill Madeira (Walk and Eat) (Walk & Eat).
Dedicated wine buffs should consult this guide Madeira: The islands and their wines (The Classic Wine Library).
Another general interest guide book is the Lonely Planet Pocket Madeira (Travel Guide).
If you’re driving in Madeira, it’s wise to have a paper map of the island as well as GPS navigation – try this Madeira map.