Madeira Island is not just known for its stunning natural landscapes and warm climate, but also for its fantastic food and drinks. The island has a unique culinary culture that blends traditional Portuguese cuisine with influences from the island’s history and geography. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at some of the most delicious and unique food and drinks you can enjoy on your visit to Madeira Island.
Poncha is Madeira’s signature cocktail, traditionally thrown back by Portuguese fishers to keep the lurgy at bay. While the original recipe is a simple blend of lemon, honey and knock-your-socks-off sugar cane rum called aguardente de cana, it’s now common to find poncha muddled with other flavours such as passionfruit and tangerine. Feel free to give them all a whirl, just maybe not at the same time. Down too many and you’ll start speaking Ponchaguese.
The Madeiran cocktail menu also includes the nikita, which is effectively a boozed-up milkshake. Island folk imaginatively whizz ice-cream with beer and white wine, and often top it off with a hunk of pineapple. It may sound peculiar, but really it’s all the good stuff in one glass. Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it.
Rest assured, Madeirans don’t always put their wine in a blender and are the custodians of a fortified wine that has found itself in some important glasses throughout history. The Americans got a taste for Madeira wine after it was collected and distributed during trade-route stopovers. The tipple was subsequently used to toast America’s Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776 as well as the inauguration of George Washington as the USA’s first president in 1789.
Madeira wine is unique, not just for its sometimes nutty or burnt butter taste, but also its resilience. Grapes are grown on the island’s steep slopes before being heated and oxidised (generally considered wine torture), and are then bottled as affirmative examples of tough love. Even once opened, this trooper will stay good for years.
Being surrounded by water, it’s no surprise Madeira hauls in its fair share of seafood. Among the island’s seaborn delicacies are limpets or lapas, which are open shellfish resembling a barnacle. Plates of lapas are typically served with garlic and a squeeze of lemon to create a simple yet tasty starter.
This is a type of bread made with sweet potato and garlic, cooked on a flat stone slab. It is often served as a side dish or with garlic butter as an appetizer.
This is a traditional Madeiran dish made with chunks of beef marinated in garlic and bay leaves, then skewered and cooked over hot coals. It is served with baked potatoes, garlic bread, and a side salad.
With a long black body, giant goggly eyes and teeth resembling a disorganised pincushion, the espada might just be the ugliest fish ever created. However, what this fish falls short of in the looks department it makes up for in taste, and you’ll find it widely available on menus across the island. The soft white flesh of the espada is a delight in itself, but the Madeirans go one better (and weirder) by pairing it with bananas, which grow in abundance across the mountainous landscape.
Along with the regular bananas that serve as the island’s second largest export (after Cristiano Ronaldo of course), Madeira showcases a couple of banana spin-offs. Enter the banana passion fruit and pineapple banana – more technically named the passiflora mollissima and monstera deliciosa respectively. The banana passion fruit essentially looks like an elongated passion fruit, while the pineapple banana has a distinctive skin patterned with green hexagons, which peel back to reveal a sweet, pale flesh. Check the fruit out in the slightly chaotic Mercado dos Lavradores where you’ll also find a colorful array of other fruits and vegetables that thrive in Madeira’s subtropical climate.
If fruit sounds too healthy for your holiday, you can always make a beeline for the cakes cabinet. Although it may seem logical that Madeira cake is the island’s typical sweet, the light sponge actually has British origins. Rather, Madeira’s baked claim to fame is bolo de mel (honey cake). The flat and dry confection has a taste of treacle and is generally sprinkled with nuts. Tradition supports saving on washing up by tearing and eating the cake by hand, and bolo de mel will generally preserve up to one year, because just like the wine, the cake is born tough in Madeira.
In conclusion, Madeira Island has a rich and diverse culinary culture, with a range of unique and delicious food and drinks. From traditional dishes like espetada and bacalhau to locally produced drinks like Madeira wine and Coral beer, there is something to suit every taste. If you’re planning a trip to Madeira, make sure you sample some of the island’s fantastic food and drinks and experience the flavors that make Madeira’s cuisine so unique.
The only tough job for you however, is now eating and drinking your way through it all. Bom apetite.
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Try the Madeiran Food and Drink