In this first instalment in our two-part series on Madeira, Portugal, we explore the gastronomy of this beautiful sub-tropical island. With an impressive selection of recipes and wines unique to the island, it is easy to simply visit Madeira for the food and through that lens, experience a unique North Atlantic culture.

 

Things to do in Madeira? Take a Food Tour!

Food gives insight into culture. This is a fact we have proven many times on our previous travels through Portugal and other countries.

We find that food tours, especially those run by locals, are a great way to get introduced to of the culture of our host country/city. Food tours are typically at the top of our ‘things to do’ list.

Madeira Passion Fruit | Maracujá | Mercado dos Lavradores

Therefore, true to form, upon arrival in Madeira, Portugal, we picked up a cute little red and white Fiat 500 CC rental and drove straight from the airport towards Funchal city centre.

Parking in this small city was surprisingly easy to find. Soon, we ditched the car and walked towards the cable car station to meet our host, Jaqueline Freitas of Madeira Exquisite Food on Foot Tours.

Funchal is Madeira’s largest city and also the administrative capital of this autonomous Portuguese territory. This bright and colourful city, formed in the shape of an amphitheatre, slopes downwards towards green valleys before being embraced by the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

HDYTI Tip: For a quick appreciation of Madeira’s unique views, visitors to Funchal should take the cable car up towards the lofty parish of Monte.

However, a deeper exploration of Madeira’s natural beauty would have to wait. This moment was all about a new food experience.

Our excitement grew as Jacqueline gave us an overview of the itinerary for the three-and-a-half-hour tour to learn about the island’s food culture.

 

A ‘seafood welcome’ on Rua de Santa Maria

Bathed in the warm afternoon sunshine, we headed towards Rua de Santa Maria, the oldest street in Funchal’s old town which dates back to the early 15th century when the first Portuguese settlers arrived on the island.

Lined with cobblestones, restaurants and doors painted with an an engaging array of street art, it was easy to see why Rua de Santa Maria is a tourist magnet.

At Taberna Madeira, we were introduced to the traditional Espada Preta (black scabbard fish). Espada is to Madeira what salted cod is to mainland Portugal.

Fished at night in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean near the fishing village of Câmara de Lobos, espada is economically important to Madeira’s fishing industry.

What this ugly, eel-like creature lacks in the looks department, it makes up for in taste. We sampled a plain version served with fried banana rolled in a simple batter of flour, butter and eggs.

The acidity of the accompanying dipping-sauce (a blend of lemon juice, salt, pepper, and chopped garlic) and the sweetness of the banana complemented the soft texture of the espada.

With this seafood welcome, we were set for the remainder of the tour.

 

Sugar and spice and all drinks nice!

A few meters from Taberna Madeira, along Rua D. Carlos, is a place called ‘Bar Number Two’. This hole-in-the-wall establishment was where we were introduced to one of Madeira’s traditional drinks called Poncha.

Made from a combination of rum, lemon juice and honey, many poncha variations exist (lemon can be replaced with orange or passion fruit juice).

However, the core of the drink is pure sugarcane spirit. With our first sip, we were hooked!

Visit Madeira for The Food | Poncha

Sugarcane, a mainstay of Madeira’s economy in the 15th and 16th centuries, is still grown on the island.

Competition from sugar produced in Spain (Canary Islands), Brazil and Africa (São Tomé and Angola) led to the decline of Madeira’s local sugar industry.

However, the sugar industry’s loss was Madeira’s wine industry’s gain. Madeiran wine is world famous for its unique flavour.

Next, we were introduced to Nikita; not a Portuguese woman but a drink that came with its own urban legend.

An experimental cocktail of sorts, Nikita is a combination of beer, white wine and vanilla ice-cream.

The frothy mess tasted good…so good that it should probably be approached with caution!

We rounded up our foray into Madeira’s mixology and viticulture with a taste of Ginja, a traditional liqueur made from fermented cherries, grape spirit and sugar.

This sweet aperitif was served in tiny chocolate shot ‘glasses’ and combined beautifully with a lean and spicy flambé chouriço (sausage).

 

Madeira on display at Mercado dos Lavradores

Madeira’s sub-tropical microclimates and rich volcanic soil create the perfect conditions for agriculture.

Mountain carved terraces covered with banana trees, sugar cane, grape vines and fruit trees form part of the island’s beautiful natural landscape.

The entire island is one huge botanical garden and the colourful produce on display at Mercado dos Lavradores, Funchal’s main market, proudly showcases its best.

Visit Madeira for The Food | Mercado dos Lavradores

This Madeiran farmers’ market commissioned in 1940 featured some striking azulejos (ceramic tiles) characteristic of traditional Portuguese architecture.

A large horticultural display in the forecourt and flower sellers wearing traditional Madeiran colours reminded us of the world-famous Madeira Flower Festival which had taken place the week before.

HDYTI Tip: Visit Madeira for the food but also check out the annual flower festival; one of the busiest events in its calendar. If big festivals are not your thing, then plan your trip around the event.

Markets are usually a great place to feel the pulse of a city. We mingled with locals to feast our eyes on neatly arranged rows of fruits, herbs, spices and locally made handicrafts.

Beyond the fruit section, we caught a glimpse of workers cleaning the fish market after the end of their trading day.

Visit Madeira for The Food | Mercado dos Lavradores

Our food itinerary included a visit to the obscurely named ‘Shop 38’ which had fruits of every colour, including miniature bananas, papaya and custard apples, on display.

There was nothing obscure about the burst of flavours we experienced from sampling Madeira’s unique varieties of passion fruit (maracujá).

Under no pressure to purchase anything, we could not resist picking up a few anyway.

 

Visit Madeira for the food and stay for the beauty

The tour had a few more stops: a street food outlet that served a bolo do caco (stone-baked sweet potato bread) pork sandwich followed by a visit to an ancient confectionery shop where we sampled traditional Madeiran almond cookies.

We ended up at a bohemian jazz/art café run by Tania, a local artist who was excited to have entered her work in a local flower arrangement competition.

We were served with dainty queijada (cupcakes filled with cottage cheese) which blended well with sweet lemongrass tea.

Visit Madeira for The Food | Madeira Exquisite Food on Foot Tours

Upon learning of our itinerary for the remainder of our trip, Jaqueline our host was happy to provide suggestions for other places to eat.

A family-run restaurant in Calheta on the south west side of the island served a spicy bacalhau (Portuguese dried/salted cod) and some immortal Madeiran wine.

Visit Madeira for The Food | Madeira Exquisite Food on Foot Tours

Visit Madeira for The Food | Santana

In Santana on the island’s wet and wild north side, we found a farmer’s restaurant called Bragado’s Especialidades and got great value for money with wholesome plates of tuna, pork and prawns.

Set on an elevation, the restaurant provided views of the island’s green topography which stretched for miles in almost every direction.

Visit Madeira for The Food | Santana

As we sat looking out to the azure blue Atlantic Ocean after our meal, we imagined ourselves as the 15th-century explorer João Gonçalves Zarco who ‘discovered’ Madeira and founded the first Portuguese settlements on the island.

He clearly saw enough to make him never want to leave again.

It may have been the effect of a few glasses of poncha but after our experience of Madeira’s food culture, we felt the same.

Disclaimer: The Funchal food tour was provided complimentary by Madeira Food on Foot Tours. However, all views expressed remain ours. We wish to thank Jacqueline for introducing us to Madeira’s incredible food culture.

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Visit Madeira for The Food | Funchal

 

Eulanda & Omo Osagiede are London-based freelance writers and award-winning social influencers who run the popular travel, food, and lifestyle blog HDYTI (Hey! Dip your toes in).

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