Arrival in Funchal, Madeira
One morning, after several days at sea, I woke to a glittering hillside port, Funchal, the capital of Madeira. My sister is flying out from England to meet me today.
I’ve always wanted to visit Madeira, a lonely Portuguese island stuck out in the Atlantic, nearer to Africa than Europe. Like the Canary Islands, Madeira had its heyday when it was an important port of call for restocking ships on the way to the Americas.
Madeira has a sublime climate, temperate and sub-tropical. As a result, the flora and fauna, not to mention the extraordinary fruit and vegetables, are exotic.
Funchal is glamorous with gleaming white and black cobbled streets, and municipal flower displays everywhere. Large marble cafes with chandeliers hedge the pedestrianised squares. Waiters look naval in white uniforms. I get my first ‘galao’, a milky Portuguese coffee. It takes time to make it, rather like a pint of Guinness, with a foamy head and graduated body.
The shops often have 1930s/50s signs, and are painted in ice cream colours, giving a retro feel to Funchal. I check out a spectacular department store, Bazar do Povo, with a grand red carpeted central staircase. I buy pyjamas and knickers, good quality and cheap.
Nearby, I get a manicure for 10 euros, blue and white stripes with red anchors. There’s an ironmongers/hardware store, where I don’t buy thick ridged galao glasses, something I later regret.
My strategy on this trip, given that we don’t have much time in each port, is to head for the central market. This enables me to check out the local produce and the best cheap restaurants are always around a market place.
What to eat and drink and buy in Madeira
Bolo de caco
These are garlic butter rolls, sold everywhere and absolutely delicious. Why isn’t garlic bread more of a thing in our street food culture? Yum.
Unbelievably strong orange or passion fruit ‘punch’. The Madeirans have it even stronger.
There are four kinds of Madeira wine, which is fortified and heated up. Traditionally it came in a wicker case. Ships would buy this wine for long voyages, it withstood the heat and movement and would never go off. Because of this, Madeira wine was very popular in the United States.
- Sercial, the driest, like a dry sherry.
- Verdelho, a little sweeter
- Bual, dark and raisiny.
- Malvasia or Malmsey, this is more like a Pedro Ximenez sherry, caramel and sweet.
Cheese plant fruit: the pineapple banana
I notice a weird banana-shaped fruit with green scales: a banana pineapple. It’s actually the fruit of a cheese plant. It looks like an alien penis but you can eat it like a corn on the cob. Madeira has a vast variety of bananas including the apple banana.
Passion fruit is one of my favourite fruits, but here in Madeira, they have different flavoured passion fruit such as lemon, orange or banana, and even tomato.
Espada fish with banana
Espada, black scabbard fish, with ‘platano’ is a typical Madeira dish. The sweet yellow banana goes well with battered white fish.
These are sour cherry-like fruit, good for diabetes.
Bay leaves and sticks
The Mediterranean used to be covered with Laurel forests (imagine the scent!): Madeira has a trace of these pre-historic wood groves. The word ‘Madeira’ is Portuguese for ‘wood’. You can also buy the branches, large twigs, for BBQ dishes such as Espetada. The bark of the Bay Laurel twig is very fragrant and will flavour any kebab.
Bolo de miel
This rich cake tastes like Christmas pudding. This isn’t what we call Madeira cake, but both cakes go well with Madeira wine.
Sugar cane honey
Sugar Cane is a major crop, the ‘honey’ or molasses is used on toast, to flavour puddings and drinks.
Sugar Cane juice
For all the demonisation of sugar, ultimately it’s just a plant (either sugar cane or beet). Try a freshly pressed sugar cane juice, with added lemon juice, for a refreshing drink.
Stalls sell unusual candied fruit such as green grapefruit rinds or hibiscus flowers.
As a Portuguese island, Madeira serves much of the same food and drink as in Portugal. Galao is a milky coffee that goes perfectly with a pastel de nata, custard tart.
A ‘green soup’ popular in Portugal, made from kale which can be bought in the market, ready-shredded, by weight. The kale seems a bit different to British kale.
Dried bouquets of fragrant oregano are sold in the market and in the surrounding streets.
These bouquets of bright yellow dried flowers are sold on the streets around the market. I love camomile tea.
Fish at the fish market
The fish market, behind the fruit and vegetable market, is fascinating but not for the faint hearted. Great bleeding hunks of tuna, dripping long black scabbard fish, bottles of mussel sauce. The Portuguese do know their fish.
Flowers and Plants
It’s legal to bring back plants from Madeira. The climate means they have some exotic examples. I even brought back a banana plant. Let’s see how it does here, fingers crossed. Above, a Madeiran lady wearing traditional dress is selling bright flowers.
As well as heading straight to the central market, I always check out haberdashers and hardware stores when I visit a country. I find a haberdashers where I purchase frilly gingham borders, which I will use for my kitchen shelves.
I prefer my cork stoppering wine bottles but it’s a popular material in Portugal and Madeira. More or less anything can be made in cork, it’s natural, lightweight, waterproof and breathable. Apart from the usual table mats, you can buy cork furniture and even see dresses made of cork.
Madeira is very proud that the world’s most famous footballer, Cristiano Ronaldo, is Madeiran. There is a statue of him at the docks.