My holiday seems like an age away already! Since returning on Saturday, I've been to Leeds, Sheffield and Nottingham, driven a high sided van down the A1 in the storms and had my car broken into. But just looking through the photos a moment ago reminded me of what a lovely week it was. Madeira is a stunningly beautiful place of rugged mountains, glittering sea, dazzling flowers and smiling faces.
The natural beauty of the place really is staggering though unfortunately, many visitors don't get to appreciate all that the island has to offer. Too many remain in the capital, Funchal, and delighted by its pretty cobbled streets, gorgeous gardens and stunning situation fail to venture into the rugged interior. Those who do will be rewarded by towering mountains, breathtaking views and a taste of rural life that has hardly changed over the past century. What a refreshing change from the usual hurly-burly of life in London!
Of course, that is not to say that Funchal isn't a great city. Sitting in a natural amphitheatre, it is the ideal base for a Madeiran holiday. Our hotel was situated in the hills a little way from the centre and had spectacular views over Funchal bay, the harbour and the Atlantic ocean. By day and by night...
But what of the food? Well. I'm not sure I'd recommend Madeira as a gourmet's paradise although it certainly has the raw ingredients - the mild climate mean that exotic fruits and vegetables are in abundance. A visit to the colourful mercado dos lavadores is a must to see all that the island produces. There were numerous fruits I didn't even recognise! What is truly remarkable is the terrain on which Madeiran farmers cultivate their crops - steep terraces cut into the mountainside make working the land back-breaking and laborious. And there is no rest for the wicked - the climate means that most fruit and vegetables ripen several times a year. It is not unusual for farmers to get four lots of potatoes in a year! Taking a walk through the farm terraces was a real eye-opener - I even saw my first ever avocado tree.
Unsurprisingly, fresh fish and shellfish is also delicious when prepared simply with olive oil, a little garlic and herbs. The speciality is 'espada', or black scabbard fish. To look at one, freshly caught, you might not be so keen to eat it. It is hardly the most appetising-looking specimen. This is because these fish live in the very depths of the ocean, surfacing only at night when they seek shallower waters in which to feed. Fishermen head out at around 2am to seek their catch to sell at market the following day...
I really enjoyed this fish - a fairly firm white fleshed fish with a pleasant flavour. It appears on every single menu, usually cooked in five or six different ways so it was fortunate that I liked it! I didn't try it cooked with banana - a speciality that I just didn't fancy!
Quality of meat was also excellent, in particularly the beef which was beautifully tender. I was slightly concerned that this was because the cows spent their lives living in tiny cowsheds on tiny terraces and therefore didn't move much, but I tried not to dwell on this too much. Some meat is also imported from the Azores. My favourite Madeiran speciality was the 'espetada' - a food usually served on high days and holidays. These are rather smart kebabs, I suppose. Large chunks of melt-in-the-mouth beef skewered with laurel twigs and grilled over an open flame. These are often served on extra long skewers which are hung ceremoniously above the table. This terrible photo should give something of an idea!
We enjoyed our 'espetadas' with sweet potatoes and salad, but fried bananas (!) and corn on the cob are also traditional.Every meal should also begin with the really delicious 'bolo do caco' which is a type of flattened bread served with garlic butter and parsley -
Espetadas are also made with the ubiquitous black scabbard fish, mixed sea food and lamb. The best meals that we ate were the ones that were simple - seabass fillets grilled and served with a simple selection of vegetables, steak cooked to perfection on a hot stone and huge tiger prawns cooked with garlic. In fact, garlic featured in most dishes. Vampires visiting Madeira should beware. In my mind, attempts to 'smarten up' the food were less successful. Chefs seemed to be somehow stuck in the 70s or 80s - fiddly methods, prawn cocktails and an unhealthy obsession with flambéeing. Actually, the latter was quite welcome. I am particularly fond of crepes suzettes and the theatre associated with the whole flaming ritual was entertaining to watch...
During the week, I saw flambéed bananas, steaks, oranges, pineapples, prawns and pancakes.
Puddings haven't quite made it to Madeira - fresh fruit is the usual choice and is absolutely delicious, of course. I did enjoy a particularly good 'Pudim maracuja', or passionfruit pudding which was a creamy thing served in a glass, sweet and sharp at the same time - excellent. The Madeirans make up for their lack of puddings with an excellent array of cakes. Madeira cake as we know it in the UK is not, in fact, something you would find in Madeira. Bolo de Mel is the traditional cake of the island and it is delicious - a rich, dense honey cake made from sugar cane molasses and the odd nut plus a generous helping of spice. A bit like a dense ginger cake. I must find a recipe and try to reproduce it.
Of course, the thing I should really comment on is the wine. I absolutely adore Madeira wine. The wines are fortified and then matured in barrels in the sweltering hot attics of Madeira lodges, or heated in estufagem. This treatment would ruin most ordinary wines, but it is what makes Madeira so wonderful. The grape varieties in question take on a burnt caramel character with oxidation and the wines can be gloriously complex and interesting. Sercial and Verdelho wines are off-dry and make fantastic aperitifs served with a handful of nuts or a plate of cheese. Bual is somewhat sweeter and Malmsey the sweetest of them all. Malmsey is wonderful with chocolatey or nutty desserts or with a cup of coffee at the end of a meal.
Sadly, too many of us are familiar only with cheap cooking Madeira which can make wonderful sauces and gravies, but I urge you to discover the better wines. The best thing about them is that unlike Sherry and Port, they really do keep forever once open, especially the darker Bual and Malmsey wines. So, open a bottle, enjoy a glass or two and happily store in the cupboard until you fancy another glass (...if you can wait that long)!