Food and Drink in Madeira

More fish than an aquarium and always on a plate

When the first meal of our four-night trip was at Il Gallo d’Oro, the Michelin star restaurant of The Cliff Bay Hotel, I thought it might go downhill from then on. However, whilst French Chef Benoît Sinthon  introduced us to theatre, elaborate presentation and exquisite flavours, we also enjoyed some of Madeira’s simpler food. The fish course in the Michelin restaurantBolo do caco were ubiquitous: warm bread rolls made from wheat flour, halved, smothered in garlic butter and parsley. They never failed to satisfy whether eaten as a starter, served with a main course or simply eaten as street food.

But back to Benoît and his specially chosen meal. After marvelling at the waiter’s strength and ability to pour a heavy magnum of champagne in the correct way (one hand, with thumb in the punt or depression), each course was paired with an introduced, different wine from Madeira or Portugal. First up, was an amuse bouche of slivers of fish decorated with smears, blobs and flowers. Four types of bread, accompanied by four flavoured butters were presented four times and resisted only once. A cube of rich foie gras, accompanied by ‘foie gras flavoured crumbs’ was topped at the table with a quenelle of sorbet and another blob of ‘something’. A lobster leg in brown foam was next and because of our unsophisticated palates, the phrase, ‘I’ve no idea what it is, but it’s delicious’ was frequently heard around the table. Helping the chef cook espadaEucalyptus smoked pigeon breast and a teensy-weensy leg were presented in the wooden smoking box before finally, a scoop of a textured ice-cream had a tart raspberry sauce poured over it at the table. We left feeling replete and thoroughly spoiled. I for one, ate so much fish (without a single chip), I feared I’d grow gills. We shared hot, grilled limpets with garlic and a squeeze of lemon at Santa Maria and tried traditional espada – black scabbardfish fillets rolled in flour, egg and breadcrumbs and fried with banana and sweet potato. In the fish market we saw the black scabbardfish (rarely seen in the UK but a Madeiran delicacy): a fat, ugly eel with long head, huge bulbous eyes and sharp fangs. It lives at an immense depth, is caught using longlines and is dead before reaching the surface because of the huge change in pressure.

Cooking the espetadaMeat wise, espetada is the equivalent of roast beef. Large chunks of beef are rubbed in garlic and salt, skewered onto a branch of bay leaves and slowly grilled over smouldering wood chips. This was often accompanied  by milho frito, crisp, golden deep-fried cubes of cornmeal

On a Food and Wine Walking Tour led by the fascinating story teller Sofia Maul, we stopped nine times, had eleven food tastings and six drinks. After sampling canapés, ginger biscuits and chocolate we sat down to the traditional Christmas dish, carne vinho e alhos: pork chunks marinated for 24 hours+ in garlic, wine vinegar and bay leaves before being cooked in the liquid. Vindaloo curry is the Indian interpretation developed in former Portuguese Goa. Both are totally different to the British bum-burning vindaloo.

Similarly, our madeira cake is a plain, simple sponge used in a trifle and a far cry from Madeira’s small round, dark spicy, honey cake, bolo de mel, again made at Christmas but kept for a year before eating. 

Pouring the ponchaYou cannot leave Madeira without trying Poncha. Our first sample, and there were many, was at a small local bar high in the hills where we watched oranges and lemons being squeezed and mixed with distilled alcohol made from sugar cane juice and honey using a long wooden muddler called a mexelote. The 50/50 mix of rum and juice produced a lethal, but delicious combination, said to be good for killing colds.

Less alcoholic was the 5.3% local light beer, Coral, and for the day after too much poncha, Brisa Maracuja, a bottled, slightly fizzy, soft drink made from passion fruit proved refreshing and restorative.

And last but not least was the fortified Madeira wine served before, with or after a meal or simply on its own.

More information

Visit Madeira has all the information you need for a holiday to this fabulous island.

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Sunvil for holidays to Madeira.

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Helen Jackson

Traveller & writer

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