Food is very important in every culture. As Madeira island is in the ocean it had a big influence for its cuisine too. But not only the ocean. So here I will share what I have tried, what you should try and even some recipes.
Starters and soups
Although starters are not a high point on the local menus, a hot bolo do caco with garlic butter and parsley, a typical wheat flour bread, appears on the top of every menu. If you are on a budget – bolo do caco with meat can stay for a dish and will cost you less than 3 Eur.
If you’re more of a soup lover, you should try sopa de tomate e cebola (tomato and onion soup). Also a fish soup. For me it was the same tomato soup with onions just added some pieces of fish. Very popular among the locals is the açorda. A bread-soup made of large pieces of bread, garlic, poached egg and olive oil, with hot water poured over everything. It’s an ideal tummy filler after a long day of Levada Walking. At least that is what I did and it worked well. You can take this soup for 2 people cause I do not know if everyone likes wet white bread. As I am from north I have expected black bread soup as we have similar one. But anyways – interesting to try.
Time for meat
Meat lovers will find a large variety of meat dishes, the highlights of which are the traditional espetada, carne de vinho e alhos (meat marinated in wine and garlic sauce), picado and other deliciously grilled meat courses (mainly chicken, pork chops, beef steaks). The espetada is made of large chunks of beef rubbed in garlic and salt, skewered onto a branch of bay leaves and left to grill over wood chips. Always appreciated on every occasion is carne vinho e alhos, a dish consisting of small pieces of pork meat left to marinade for at least for a day in a mixture of garlic, wine vinegar and bay leaves, before it is cooked in the same sauce. You can try it in almost every restaurant.
Due to the long established fishing tradition on the island, fish plays an important role in the daily meals of the locals. Tuna, espada (black scabbard fish), bacalhau (codfish), gaiado (a regional fish treated like codfish) feature in many main courses. Traditionally, fresh tuna is first marinated in olive oil, garlic, salt and oregano before it is fried. A must eat is the espada with banana, which is a very successful combination of a soft white fish with a strong tropical flavour. Tried it in one of the restaurants in Funchal, called Espettus. It was not the cheapest place but food was very good. Also look out for other tasty espada combinations as there are many more!
Codfish is prepared in many different ways too. From the delicious bacalhau com natas (cod fish with sliced potatoes and cream) to bacalhau à Braz or just simply grilled cod, bacalhau is a perennial favourite of the Portuguese. I have tried bacalhau com natas and it was tasty and cheap as it was prato do dia – day meal. Make sure to ask about them in all restaurants you go – they are much cheaper and not only during lunch time.
Time for dessert
Dessert is also very important in local life. Everywhere on the island, you will find a wide variety of cakes, sweets and desserts. The list is long, but most popular are the queijadas, a small cake made of requeijão (cottage cheese), eggs and sugar. Also a favourite is the bolo de mel (honey cake) and the honey cookies. Bolo de mel, Madeira’s oldest sweet, dates back to the times when the island was an important producer of sugar. It is traditionally eaten during Christmas. It has a very strong taste and is long lasting so I got many of them to bring as a souvenir from the island. Other regional dessert specialties include passion fruit pudding and fresh tropical fruit or fruit salad. I have tried them when ordered a set day meal that includes a dessert. Nice addition to the main meal. In the markets you can buy local fruits such as passion fruit mixed with orange, tomato or banana. In Mercado do Lavradores is very expensive! And if you go there, do not buy from the first people that smiled at you. Prices vary from 25 Eur/kg to 15 Eur/kg. So be careful, but fruits are amazing.
Last but not the least – Madeira drinks. Locals produce their own wine from different grapes – the so-called vinho seco (dry wine). In south of the island you can find nikita, a refreshing sweet drink made of beer, ice cream and small pieces of pineapple. For me it very much reminded pina colada. What you can find everywhere on the island (and I mean everywhere!) is the traditional poncha, which can be consumed cold or hot. If you like it and you wish to introduce it to your friends back home, here’s the recipe! Take one good measure of agua ardente (a white alcohol made from distilled sugar cane) and mix it with mel de cana (sugar cane honey), fresh lemon juice (add some orange juice if you like) and stir it well. And there you have your homemade poncha. It is best to consume it in 15 minutes after making so I do not recommend to buy poncha in the bottles. Better enjoy it in the bars watching the sunset. One of the most popular ones is Maktub in Paul do mar. Tourists and locals gather together and stay outside with poncha to watch the sun setting to the sea.
I hope you will enjoy food and drinks in Madeira. Views and fresh air makes food taste even better.
More tips about travel in Madeira.