A LONG WEEKEND IN MADEIRA
by Andrew Chalk
You fly into Madeira on Friday morning after a one and three-quarter hour flight from Lisbon and leave first thing Monday. What on earth do you do?
MADEIRA -- THE OVERVIEW
The minimal description of Madeira would have it be a windswept island in the North Atlantic with a quarter of a million inhabitants. That ignores its verdancy, the mild subtropical climate, the volcanic topography, or the friendliness of the local community. Madeira has all these in spades.
Most people live in the capital, Funchal, a splendid architectural outgrowth of Portugal’s merchant adventurer era. Situated on the southern coast it has many narrow cobbled streets lined with locally-owned shops. The dining scene is positively pulsating with a blend of island and imported influences. Regarding international recognition, two restaurants have Michelin stars (one has two). A desire to be ‘local’ influences the overwhelming majority of eateries, marking out seafood as the dominant protein. In particular, black scabbard fish, a fish with a curious shape that looks like an eel that spent three months in a gym, is a delicacy that lives around the island’s shores and is fished year round. Also available are tuna, limpets (like a chewy clam. They are pan-fried and served with lemon), and numerous fish also found in mainland restaurants.
THE FARMERS’ MARKET
The place to see ingredients that are currently available is the Farmers’ Market (Mercado dos Lavradores). Seafood occupies an area larger than a basketball court and can be purchased on the spot.
The impressive market building was designed by Edmundo Tavares and opened in 1940. It reflects what is called Estado Novo (New State) architecture that was in favor under the then new regime of António de Oliveira Salazar.
Flowers At The Market
Sharing pride of place with seafood is the flower market. The windy, warm climate, elevations from sea level up to 6,100 feet, and all angles of the compass being accessible make for a variety of plants that is among the largest in the world. Flowers are exported to mainland Portugal and other countries in Europe.
The warm climate is also the source of the large range of locally-grown herbs and spices at the market. Some stalls even exhibit the crushing machines that convert the dried plants to powders.
Add to the above a cornucopia of produce and the market could serve as the source of 90% of your weekly food shopping.
MONTE PALACE TROPICAL GARDENS
Flowers are not limited to the market. One of Funchal’s charms is that it is built at the foot of a mountain that can be scaled by cable car. At 3,280 feet is the Monte Palace and Tropical Gardens, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Madeira. The Palace has origins in the 18th century when the English Consul, Charles Murray, built the original estate. The palace was built in 1897 and passed through several hands until 1987 when entrepreneur José Manuel Rodrigues Berardo purchased it. It was he who set out to create the gardens as an object of pastoral beauty and an educational centre. The house was donated to an environmental charity.
A tour of the garden takes 2-3 hours. In addition there are several museums on the site. Notably one devoted to African art and another to minerals and gems.
SLEIGH RIDE EXPERIENCE
Returning to sea level can be done with an adrenaline-boosting high intensity experience of a different kind. A squad of mushers known as ‘carreiros’ operate a fleet of sleighs that they push in pairs. The two-manpower sleighs leave from just outside the Monte Palace and scream down a mile of city streets, taking corners at full tilt, to an arrival point about a mile north of the harbor (the rest of the walk is all downhill, or there are taxis available). As a passenger it’s an e-ticket ride unlike anything else. The carreiros must be the fittest guys on the island.
The Vine Hotel were our hosts on this trip. The hotel is on the upper floors of a building that houses the La Vie shopping mall in the basement (handy) and eateries and shops on the ground floor. Ride the escalator up to the lobby and you are immediately confronted by a design signature that runs throughout the hotel. The designer was Nini Andrade Silva, a Madeiran native whose reputation is now international. Her style can be described as contemporary without being too minimalist or too hyperbalist. The object of her attention is large rocks and several dot the lobby.
The signature restaurant is Uva, on the top floor with panoramic views down to the port. Be sure to get a table on the patio if weather permits. Stylistically, the food at Uva is modern Portuguese in that it centers on local produce prepared using classic French techniques. Since Uva is Portuguese for ‘grape’, wine is a central part of the experience. The heart of the cellar is a large selection of island wines buttressed by selections from other regions of Portugal.
Also on the top floor is the open-air pool stretched the length of the building with an infinity lip towards the ocean.
Rooms feature modern design touches such as power points at table level, flat screen TVs, trough sinks, luxury Egyptian cotton bed sheets and, one very nice feature, motion sensitive lights under the bed so that when you swing your feet out your path is illuminated in front of you. WiFi was reliable and relatively fast.
Billed as Akua by Chef Julio Pereira, and rightly so as Pereira established his reputation at his first restaurant Kampo and brought his soul with him to Akua. This lively, boisterous restaurant is situated in the centre of Funchal nightlife just a recovering alcoholic’s stumble from The Vine Hotel. The predominantly young crowd is served and cooked for by a seemingly even younger crowd of highly enthusiastic employees.
At street level is the open kitchen ringed with seats providing a closeup view of food being prepared. Upstairs, standard seating provides a more subdued setting.
Big here are shareable plates of seafood such as oysters (€4), Tiger Shrimp with Coriander Butter (€23), Sardine, Aubergine, and Passion Fruit (€9.5). There are also ‘market suggestions’ like Grouper with Coriander Fried Eggs (€19.50) and Baked Pork Belly with Sweet Potato (€19.5) and whole courses of most popular fish. Meat is the minority partner here, having been the focus at Kampo, so just three dishes get carried over (steak, pork cheek, and duck leg).
Desserts are variants of the ‘sinful with fruit’ variety. Like ice cream with banana and juniper berries.
Pereira has good people skills judging by the enthusiasm and initiative with which the staff approach their tasks. Everything we had was correctly prepared and service flowed smoothly delivered by our waitress.
The wine list, shared with Kampo, is 30 selections of Portuguese offerings with just a couple of whites and a sparkling from the island. Two local wines are from Quinta do Barbusano, which we visited the day before. Based on the tempranillo-based wines owner António Oliveira showed us, Akua should consider adding one of his reds. One nice touch is listing the variety mix after the name of each wine. Prices look outrageously inexpensive to the US visitor (equal to US retail, not restaurant, prices).
If in downtown Funchal, looking for a fun place with straightforward but well-prepared food, Akua is a good bet.
Fajã dos Padres
If you ever complained about ease of access to a popular restaurant, Fajã dos Padres in Madeira will give you a whole new perspective on awkward entrances. Fajã dos Padres (“guilt of two priests” in literal English, but translated more epigramatically as Land of the Fathers) is at the bottom of a 1000 foot cliff and served only by a cable car, or by boat. Given that the sea is the full force of the Atlantic Ocean, docking at the small jetty is sometimes not for the faint of heart (or stomach).
We took the cable car. The picture below is from street level. Note the cable car dock on the far right (the thing that looks like a set of goal posts). The modern lift (2016) takes four passengers at a time from the street to the dock in an enclosed and vented gondolier. You actually come down inside a private farm belonging to the visionaries who developed the area, Family Vilhena de Mendonça and Mário Jardim Fernandes. The cluster of buildings next to the dock are holiday lets for people who would rather wake to the crashing of north Atlantic waves than the crashing of car drivers on city streets. The larger complex is Fernandes’ crush pad from where he sends grapes to wineries and, moving leftwards, his own house. Restaurant Fajã dos Padres is on the left of our picture, just before the pier. You walk to it either along the path adjacent to the beach, or inland on a parallel path tracing the cliff base.
The verdant growth is a cornucopia of tropical plants that form the menu at the restaurant. You could stop and pick avocado, banana, cherry tomatoes, chilies, figs, guava, mangoes, papaya, passion fruit, and pitangas (Brazilian cherries).
However, we hurried to our table for lunch as time was slipping by. It was consummately relaxing to sit down at our table right next to the roaring Atlantic Ocean and sipping a glass of a local lager, Coral.
The menu is divided into “From the sea…” and “From the Grill - Meat…”. From the heavily farm-sourced menu of Madeiran favorites I picked out a fish that had rapidly become a favorite in my short time on the island, scabbard fish, a ferocious-looking eel-like creature that is caught all year around the island, and actually surprised me with its soft and sweet white flesh. This variation was dredged in flour and deep-fried before being paired with boiled potatoes and a garden salad of farm lettuce, cucumber, white onion, shredded carrot and, the Madeiran touch, mango (€17.70). Mango slices and mango purée were the tropical tartar on this dish, moistening and flavoring the slices of fish. Interestingly, during our meal we saw a cook go from the kitchen to a mango tree and cut a large mango down to take back to the kitchen. That is fresh.
My Madeiran guide chose another local specialty, tuna, which is caught in the waters around the island and impressive examples of which take star place at the daily fish market. If you have wondered what fresh, whole tuna tastes like versus its denuded canned or frozen rivals, Madeira is an excellent place to get an introduction. It was served simply with red beans (€17.70).
On to dessert and pitanga cake with mango listed as Surprise of the Day (the name they give to what they have in season), the pitanga coming from the property.
Finally, a coffee before leaving as, even fifty feet from the ocean, Portuguese coffee is delicious.
Fajã dos Padres is a one-of-a-kind location, a menu founded on Madeira’s rich food supply, a highly successful unique agricultural enterprise, all tied together in a way that is not to be missed. The only thing better than coming for a meal would be coming to stay in one of the holiday lets. That would be quite a scene to wake up to.
Nini Andrade Silva Design Centre Restaurant
For an edgy dining experience one of the best places on Madeira is the restaurant at the Nini Andrade Silva Design Centre (which is also a co-working space in the Digital Nomad Program (spend €10 a day at the café and your day rent is covered). Situated on the top floor of an old fort at the Funchal Port, adjacent to the ferry terminal, the indoor and outdoor tables afford a panoramic view of the city of Funchal, magnifying its location in the bowl of surrounding mountains. Other floors in the fort, known locally as Molhe- Fortaleza da Nossa Senhora da Conceição (Fortress of Our Lady of Conception), are devoted to the rest of the Nini Andrade Silva operation. A workshop, gallery, exhibition space, and cafeteria. Needless to say, given her specialty in furniture, the restaurant decor is an extension of her portfolio - and unique for it.
The menu offers either a set menu or à la carte. Food at the 2015 opening was created by consulting chef Miguel Laffan who, in a previous position, had been the recipient of a Michelin star. Eleutério Costa is the current executive chef.
The style is modern, the helpings are modest but can be made up with more of them, and the wine list is strong on wines of Portugal. After an amuse bouche of a single spoon of briny baccalao we enjoyed foie gras with Madeira wine jelly and banana chutney. The heat of the banana chutney being cut adroitly by the richness of the foie gras. The rôle of the wine jelly added an extra flavor dimension. A white wine from Portugal’s Alentejo region accompanied the foie gras. While I commend the sommelier for serving the underrated Fernão Pires grape, I wonder why he did not seize the chance to showcase the island’s signature fortified Madeira with foie gras? There is form.
Our main course of catch of the day featured cod crowned with a mustard crust, potato terrine, and creamed leeks. Well conceived and prepared, but so itsy-bitsy.
The accompanying wine is a floral 2020 Meia Encosta Branco from the Dão. It is not just a well-weighted match with the food but a change in taste for a palate that lives in America. The blend, Malvasia fina 50 %, Encruzado 30 %, Bical 10 %, Fernão Pires 10 % could only have come from Portugal. Dão wines are criticized in certain quarters but those folks should be aware that they are not just drinking a wine, they are drinking an ancient civilization.
Dessert was salty caramel cheesecake, a photogenic dome of cheesecake swirled with caramel, topped with nuts and crowned with a nasturtium flower. It was intensely creamy cheesecake. I resolved to walk down, rather than take the elevator, so that my conscience would enjoy it too.
At the end of your meal take another look through those floor-to-ceiling windows, or take an amble out to the balcony. The dark sky now depicts Funchal as a collage of pinprick lights rearing up further away as the hills rise on the horizon. It is a stunning location, and a pretty good meal as well.
Quinta do Furão Restaurante
For a change of pace from busy Funchal head north through the ecological park to the north coast. A short drive along the coast road is the Quinta do Furão Restaurante. From a perch two hundred feet above the crack of the Atlantic breakers on the cliff below dine on Portuguese traditional specialities with bread made at the on-site bakery and sip on a wine made only ten miles away. Things could be worse! Quinta do Furão is the kind of place where proposals are made and marriages are rescued.
It can be appreciated in the full bright sun of lunch time or in the more subdued light of evening, but do arrive in daytime as here it is all about the view. For that reason, reserve on the balcony (subject to weather).
On a warm day settle back with a glass of Madeira Verdelho such as the Vinho Branco from Terras do Avô (Grandfather’s Lands) a curiously named wine with an even curiouser label apparently depicting a cartoon image of a dog in a doublet and hose. Why? Further research turned up the name of the label artist as Marco Fagundes Vasconcelos. Fortunately, the winery is just up the coast about 10 miles so it should be fairly easy to ask the winemaker for the explanation in person.
The local specialty of limpets (€9.50), hewn from the rocks of the island and served in their shells sauteed in butter make an excellent palate stimulant. The bright acid of the Verdelho makes this a complete light but compelling starter.
By the time we are through this, it turns out Madeira is still a rock in the middle of the Atlantic, so that behooves us to go with seafood and we choose the catch of the day, seabass.
We accompanied this with the Fried Cornmeal (€4.50), a vegetable side we encountered at least twice on our trip but isn’t common here. It’s an enticing combination of crunchy exterior and soft interior. Roasted Potatoes with Garlic and Parsley (€3.50) and Sauteed Regional Vegetables (€3.50) completed our election of sides.
There were attractive desserts and we enjoyed the Apple Crumble with Red Fruits and Vanilla Ice Cream (€5).
Although the view can pretty much monopolize your attention, try to head inside and make your way around to the small bar just off the dining room. On the back of the bar are some familiar brand names. However, nestled in with them check out some local rums. Sugar cane was an important trading commodity in the island’s past and there is something of a rum tradition.
SPECIALTY FOOD SHOPS
UAUCACAU is a local chocolatier founded in 2014 by Tony Fernandes and his wife, Sofia. Using Belgian cacao he crafts works of edible art as chocolates or client-centric projects such as a dessert-sized grand piano or manual grape crusher. Little wonder that they have won European-wide competitions with their creations (tip: their passion fruit bonbon won a gold medal in a Portuguese national competition). This is a good time to pick up gift boxes of chocolates for the trip home (or that evening).
Fabrica Santo António
Fabrica Santo António (Saint Antonio Factory) is a 129-year old family-owned cookie and cake bakery. There is no escaping the similarity in the biscuit cans with traditional English biscuit makers. Indeed, one of the flagship products is traditional Christmas cake made with fruit, spices, molasses, but no eggs, which keeps up to one year so you can buy it any time and take it home. Their cookies, made from hazelnut, sugar molasses, or passion fruit are irresistible and ideal with coffee. Unfortunately, transport costs prevent them from shipping outside Funchal. In fact, the web site consists of only a 200-word landing page, so no e-commerce yet.
Blandy’s Wine Lodge
The soporific effects of a satisfying meal may tempt you to take a siesta. The other temptation is to take an 8 minute walk from The Vine Hotel to the official tasting room of the Madeira Wine Company. That is Blandy’s, to use its more common identity, the company that has done more than any other to keep the unique fortified wine of the island on the lips of the most discerning wine palates of the world over its 210-year history.
The tasting room is actually more of a whole series of rooms offering a museum of madeira history, production methods, and wine expressions. The style is old-world clubiness and the popular tasting room offers a full range of wines and flights along with snacks. If you want a madeira to take back to the mainland, this is where to get it. If you want an older vintage, especially so.
Quinta Do Barbusano
António Oliveira founded Quinta do Barbusano in 2006. It is located on a steep mountainside at the edge of the town Sao Vicente, about half a mile from the Atlantic Ocean on the north coast of Madeira. It wasn’t a case of just purchasing a plot. There were 88 owners of the land and António had to get them all to agree to sell. It was 2008 that Antonio produced his first wine at Quinta do Barbusano.
Varieties in the vineyards are arnsburger, malvasia verdelho, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, touriga nacional, and arragoniz (tempranillo). Many of them are trellised on the pergola system which allows easier harvesting given the steep slopes. One consequence of this method is that whites crush into a very light-colored liquid due to many of the grapes being covered with a thick canopy that means they do not fully ripen.
António took us through a tasting, starting with his white wines. The Verdelho base of most of these provides high acid levels making for crisp wines, aromas of green apples and honeydew melon, and flavors of ripe stone fruits (peach, apricot), grapefruit, and nectarine. Some are appellated under the IGT Terras Madeirenses and others as DOP Madeirenses.
One particularly interesting white wine was the Barbusano 2016 ‘Barricas’ Vinho Branco, DOP Madeirense. It receives some oak aging and the Verdelho grape, like chardonnay, takes that well. It gives depth to the palate and more phenolic complexity to the wine.
Among the reds, it was a Barricas, the Barbusano 2012 ‘Barricas’ DOP Madeirense that was most impressive. A blend of touriga nacional and aragonez aged in French oak, the near decade of age really showed, creating a fully resolved wine with velvet tannins. This will continue to age but was thoroughly enjoyable with our roasted skewers of lamb.
We celebrated a memorable tasting with a glass of António’s Extra Bruto, a sparkling wine he makes using the same method used in Champagne, but from the Verdelho grape. The combination worked!
Barbusano caused me to undergo a reassessment. Red table wine of depth and complexity is possible on the island. Leading restaurants in Funchal may want to sit up and take note.
North Mills Distillery
The historical sugar trade on the island led to the inevitable diversion into distilling. An artifact of that is the Engenhos do Norte (North Mills Distillery) at Porto da Cruz. A visit here takes you through the whole process of rum production and includes a tasting at the end. The product is high quality and embodies thousands of stories of Madeira settlers from olden times.
LEGAL AND LOGISTICAL STUFF ABOUT VISITING MADEIRA
Madeira is part of Portugal, and therefore the European Union. Passport requirements derive from that. COVID requirements may vary from the mainland, check here. The Euro is the currency. ATMs are easy to find, and credit cards are generally accepted. Restaurant food is about 25% less than the USA and restaurant wine is one-third the price. Gas costs more than in the USA but the amount varies. The time zone tracks Lisbon. Madeirans drive on the right. Uber was on the island but withdrew in May 2021 when Big Taxi got whore-politicians to pass an anti-app law. So the digital transformation has its opponents who may still condemn the island to backwardness. The Uber signs you see are for Uber Eats.
Almost all flights are to/from Lisbon (LIS), with a few from London Heathrow (LHR). Azores Airlines flies seasonally from New York (JFK) via The Azores (also part of Portugal).
If you are a resident of the EU you don’t need a visa to visit Madeira. If you are a resident of the UK, USA, or Canada you don’t need a visa to stay up to 90 days.
CONVINCED TO GO?
Madeira is an island of a thousand delights and we can only hope to scratch the surface here. The best way to experience it is to hop on a plane!