Sunday, 23 June 2013

The pearl of the Atlantic

Overlooking Funchal
Madeira island is often referred to as the "Pearl of the Atlantic", and if you've ever had the pleasure of visiting, you understand why.  It's as beautiful and demure as a pearl necklace in 1955. Until you hit the sea side poncha bar, then it's like South Beach. 

Madeira is an autonomous region of Portugal, located off the coast of Morocco.  My mother was born on this lovely sub-tropic island and immigrated to Canada at the age of four.  My grandfather was one of the first Portuguese people to make the voyage across the ocean and settle in Canada.  And even though we joke about him staying in Canada because of his love of the great sport of hockey, we've always held a special place in our hearts for things Madeirense (pertaining to Madeira).  So because I've been able to visit the island of Madeira several times over the years and have a pretty good insight into the culture, I thought I'd share it with you as it's not usually on the radar except when a recipe calls for a Madeira wine sauce.

You won't find Madeira in too many North American travel brochures, but
German and British tourists have been flocking there for years.  In fact, it was one of Winston Churchill's favourite vacation spots.  It's changed a lot in the last 60 years.  What hasn't really? But it still upholds a lot of it's old world charm and traditions.

The capital city of Madeira is Funchal.  There are still many cobble-stoned pedestrian-only streets to navigate with small shops guiding the way. My favourite cafe is next the the Se Cathedral.  They serve the most delicious palmier pastries, but you have to get there before they're all gone mid-afternoon.  The best place to grab a sandwich and a beer is the market.  You can get a traditional pork sandwich and a beer for only four Euros.  Get the sandwich on the flat bread - bolo do caco.  It'll change your life.  Ok, maybe that's a little extreme, but you will thank me. While you're there you should also check out the fruit and fish market.  You will find all sorts of different fruit varieties, most of which you've probably never seen before.  The fresh catch of the day can also be purchased here.  If you've never seen a whole tuna before, this will knock your socks off.  How do they get that giant fish in that little can? 

Murals by Irene Quintal of IQ Designs
The Madeirense culture has always been an artistic one.  When my grandparents were still living there my grandmother made a living doing embroidery and my grandfather made wicker baskets and furniture.  These were the staples of trade for Madeira.  Part of the draw for tourists was to come and purchase these handicrafts.  Madeira still produces a lot of embroidered textiles and wicker items, but there is also a new burgeoning art scene.  They have taken an old street in Funchal and turned it into an outdoor art gallery of sorts.  Local artists were commissioned to paint murals on the doors lining the street.  It's beautiful, colourful and whimsical.  They have also started cultivating new forms of handicrafts with regularly occurring art fairs and outdoor markets.  So be sure to check one of these out the next time you're in town.  You could pick up a traditional embroidered table cloth and a new cork purse by IQ designs. 

One of the most famous poncha bars on the island.
You can't talk about craftsmanship in Madeira and not mention their wine and spirit making.  Madeira wine is known the world over and here you'll be able to get a glimpse of where the magic happens.  Madeira also makes apple cider, but that's a little trickier to come by unless you're at the September festival in Santo da Serra, then there's cider abound. But my absolute hands down favourite drink in Madeira is poncha (rum punch).  It is the perfect blend of lemon juice, honey and Madeiran sugar cane rum (Aguardente de cana).  It's strong, so they serve it in a small glass which you're supposed to sip from, not shoot.  If it's made correctly it'll go down really smoothly and warm your tummy ever just so slightly.  There are lots of poncha bars around the island, so you'll have no trouble finding some.  They also make them in different flavours, but call me a traditionalist, I think the simple way is the best.  If you opt for the absinthe version, you're on your own and don't say I didn't warn you.  I made the naive error of introducing my Canadian friends to poncha, so when I come back from Madeira I always bring a bottle of rum back because I know they'll be asking me to make them some. 

Madeira is also chalk full of natural pleasures for you to enjoy.  Being an island, you know that there are bound to be beaches.  There are black sand beaches, yellow sand beaches and rock beaches, so you can take your pick, or experience them all.  Madeira also happens to be an archipelago which means that more than one island makes up the region.  They have dedicated the island of Porto Santo for beach culture.  You can take the boat over for the day or spend a couple of days soaking up the sun and doing a myriad of water activities.  

With it's mountainous terrain, Madeira is also perfect for the avid trekker.  There are many guided treks through pre-historic protected forests to choose from.  I did one of these treks and came across a six foot tall dandelion.  Cool? Well, I thought so.  I chose to do the levada trek.  Levadas are the canals that carry the water from the top of the mountains down through the villages and eventually out to sea.  If you're feeling really daring you can also choose to do the walk that goes between the highest peaks.  This is not for the faint of heart, those afraid of heights, or those who feel like they might suffer from vertigo.  These points are really high and there aren't any railings so you'll have to be extra careful to watch your step. It wouldn't take much for a disasterous fall to occur.

Because Madeira is a small mountainous island, the weather can change rather quickly so remember to always carry and extra layer just in case. Most of the locals keep a cardigan close by at all times.  That being said, summer time in Funchal is almost always 23 degrees with sun and a few clouds.    

Once you've done all of that adventuring you're going to be hungry.  Really hungry! But deciding off the menu is hard because it's all good.  These are the must-haves to taste.   
- Carne Espetada com milho frito - That is a giant sish kabob of meat that will probably serve 3 and a side of fried corn meal squares.  
- Fresh Tuna steaks 
- Grilled Lapas - lapas are kind of like one-sided mussels that are grilled with butter and lemon.  It's shell serves as it's own individual serving dish
- Espada preta com banana frita - Black Scabbard Fish with a fried banana.  I know it sounds weird, but it is so tasty and you can't really get this anywhere else since Madeira doesn't export their bananas. 
- gaiado - dried skip jack tuna that is then cooked and prepared in a parsley and onion sauce (this is more of a snack or appetizer than a meal)
The seafood is always an excellent option as it's always fresh and often caught that morning. It's a good thing you're doing all that walking or you'll have to buy some new clothes too to go along with all that eating. 
-Bolo de Mel - a dense cake made of molasses

Best places: 
I've already mentioned a few, but I have to let you in on a few more. 
for folklore on Saturday nights: Cafe Relogio, Camacha (you can also get your wicker handicrafts here)
Espetada: O Lagar, Camara de Lobos
Seafood by the sea: Doca do Cavacas, Funchal (the shrimp here is my favourite)


Festa das Flores: The flower festival.  There's a big parade in Funchal and is usually held in May
Festa da Nossa Senora do Monte: Festival of Our Lady.  August 15.  This is the big religious festival on the island and is celebrated with lots of food and drink.  It is celebrated all over the island, but specifically at Monte which is just a cable car ride from Funchal. 
Apple Cider Festival: Santo do Serra in September
New Year's Eve: This might be Madeira's biggest tourist draw as the island is lit up with a spectacular fireworks display at midnight.   Have a great time!