Madeira Island – ‘the pearl of the Atlantic’ – keeps the promise of extraordinary holidays with its magnificent scenery, mild climate, serene ambience, colourful folk traditions and, last but not least, its seductive gastronomy. Local cuisine is based on peasant traditions and, in general terms, the closer you can get to the traditional methods of preparation and cooking, the better it tastes.
Although starters are not a high point on the local menus, a warm bolo do caco with garlic butter and parsley (a flat circular wheat flour bread, typical of Madeira) appears on the top of every menu. Very much in favour with the locals are grilled limpets for starting a nice meal. Served with garlic and a squeeze of lemon, this speciality comes in a hot pan directly from the grill.
If you're more of a soup lover, you should absolutely try the delicious sopa de tomate e cebola (tomato and onion soup) crowned with a poached egg. Also very popular with the locals is the açorda, a bread-soup made of large pieces of bread, garlic, poached egg, winter savoury and olive oil, with hot water poured over everything. The fragrance is enticing and it's an ideal tummy filler after a long day of levada walking.
Meat lovers will find a large variety of meat dishes, the highlights of which are the traditional espetada, carne vinha-d'alhos, picado and other deliciously grilled meat courses (mainly chicken, pork chops, beef steaks). The espetada is made of chunks of beef rubbed in garlic and salt, skewered onto a stick (or a branch of bay leaves in popular festivals) and left to grill over smouldering wood chips. Appreciated on every occasion is carne de vinha-d'alhos, a dish consisting of small pieces of pork meat left to marinade for at least a day in a mixture of garlic, wine vinegar and bay leaves, before it is cooked in the same sauce. This speciality is particularly typical during Christmas.
Last but not least, we should not miss mentioning the very popular picado, which comes in different sizes according to the number of people it has to feed. The picado traditionally consists of small pieces of beef fried with garlic in a pan, sometimes with the addition of red peppers, served in one big dish surrounded by French fries. Everybody eats out of the same dish with a fork or a wooden toothpick (picar = pick) – an ideal dish to prepare without much effort for get-togethers with family and friends.
Milho frito – delicious deep-fried cubes of cornmeal – is a favourite side dish to accompany a main meat course. As for vegetables, you will find locally cultivated vegetables on the local menus, including carrots, green beans, abobrinha (similar to zucchini), pimpinela (chayote) and peas, usually prepared in a very simple way. Salads are not always part of the daily diet of the islanders, and when they are, they are usually composed of lettuce, tomatoes, grated carrots and lots of sliced onions.
Due to the long established fishing tradition on the island, fish plays an important role in the daily diet of the locals. Tuna, espada (black scabbard fish), bacalhau (codfish), gaiado (a regional fish treated like codfish) and potas (similar to a huge squid) feature in many main courses. Traditionally, fresh tuna is first marinated in olive oil, garlic, salt and oregano before it is fried, and it is usually served with milho frito. This kind of cornmeal preparation is very often also preferred as side dish to espada fried with onion. A must-eat is the espada with banana, which is a very successful combination of a soft white fish with a strong tropical flavour. But do also look out for other tasty espada combinations as there are many more!
Codfish is prepared in many different ways. From the delicious bacalhau com natas (codfish with sliced potatoes and cream) to bacalhau à Brás (codfish with shoestring fries mixed with whisked eggs), bacalhau à Gomes de Sá (codfish with boiled potatoes and caramelised onions) or just simply grilled cod, bacalhau is a perennial favourite of the Portuguese.
When you have spent a few days on the island, you will soon discover that Madeirans also have a sweet tooth! Everywhere on the island, in all the cafés, snack bars and restaurants, you will find a wide variety of cakes, sweets and desserts. The list is long, but most popular with the locals 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 and is traditionally eaten during Christmas. Other regional dessert specialities include passion fruit pudding and fresh tropical fruit of all kinds, often served in a delicious fruit salad.
Drinks also have their own place on Madeira's list of specialities. Besides the world-renowned Madeira Wine, locals produce their own wine from different grapes, the so-called vinho seco (dry wine). Also very common in bars located in Câmara de Lobos and surrounding areas is the nikita (or niquita), a refreshing sweet drink made of beer, juice, ice cream and small pieces of pineapple. There is also a non-alcoholic version made only with juice. But what you can find everywhere on the island (and we mean everywhere!) is the traditional poncha, which can be served cold or at room temperature. If you like it and you wish to introduce it to your friends back home, here's the recipe! Take one good measure of aguardente (a white alcohol made from distilled sugar cane) and mix it with mel de abelha (honey), fresh lemon juice (add some orange juice if you like) and stir it well. Serve at room temperature or chilled. Besides the traditional poncha, there are also other versions made with different fruit juices (tangerine, passion fruit, etc.) that are served with ice.