Food is Life on Madeira

In 1856, Queen Victoria was a third of her way into her reign, and somewhere in a cellar on Madeira a bottle of sweet wine was corked. This lucky writer would open it 165 years later.


5 min read

I was fortunate enough to be at the Barbeito Winery on a sunny afternoon in Madeira. The winery sits atop a cliff with dramatic views down to Funchal, the island’s ancient capital, and the endless Atlantic Ocean beyond.

View of Funchal from the rooftop of Castanheiro Boutique Hotel. Photo: James Loveday.

On arrival, before I had even sat down, I was handed an amber glass of lightly chilled Sercial. From that moment I knew this would be good. Wandering through Barbeito’s cellars, I chatted to the present-day winemaker and tasted the distinct Madeira varietals on offer as the day stretched out before me. It wasn’t long before my host ushered me into his personal tasting room.

Winemaking in Madeira

It was here he told me he was going to let me try a "56", before pausing and adding with a wry smile, “It’s an 1856.” The bottle of wine came from his personal collection, and it was stamped with that vintage. I’ve tried old wines before but just the thought of its age made me weak at the knees. So I sat down, caught my breath and enjoyed every note of the spices, nuts and molasses that were bottled nearly two centuries ago.

Cellar shop at D’Oliveiras. Photo: James Loveday.

Madeira’s distinctive wine was invented serendipitously when the barrels of table wine, used as ballast on sea voyages were opened and sampled after a round trip. The long, hot journey home had led to the wine being heated, cooked by the sun, or ‘Madeirised’ as they say. When later poured, it was found to be thicker, sweeter and richer than normal, and people loved it.

When you first arrive on the island, you’re greeted by several imposing peaks at its centre which are shrouded in clouds. They tower high above the Atlantic’s crashing waves. The land here is fertile, a verdant oasis in the desert of the sea. The volcanic soils provide rich nutrients which enable locals to grow a staggering quantity and variety of fruits, vegetables and flowers. This has helped to make Madeira the perfect destination for food lovers searching for truly authentic local dishes.

The land here is fertile, a verdant oasis in the desert of the sea.

I visited Fajã dos Padres, just west of the capital and accessible only via mountainside cable car. The small farm, guest house and restaurant sit at the base of a huge cliff and boasts not only high-quality grapes, but also bananas, mangoes, avocados, papayas, passion fruits and sugar cane, which you can taste fresh from the surrounding trees as part of a tasting tour. Alternatively, you can order it all from the café. The homemade mango ice cream was a favourite. As I ate and watched the waves crash against the dark grey stones on the beach, I imagined the solitude and loneliness of the early settlers who came here first to grow their crops, but also smiled at their surprise at just how fertile the land was.

Fresh produce at the Mercado dos Lavradores. Photo: Jose Mendes

Produce from Fajã dos Padres usually ends up in the Mercado dos Lavradores (Farmer’s Market) in the colonial-era capital of Funchal. The array of fruits and vegetables on display here is staggering. There were five types of banana, over ten different passion fruits, dozens of chillies, custard apples and my favourite, the rare and decadent fruit of the monstera deliciosa or Swiss-cheese plant (a long tubular appendage which you can pick apart when ripe, to get to the flesh inside). There’s so much sugarcane grown in Madeira they also make barrel loads of exported rum, and still have plenty of molasses left over for another local delicacy, the island’s famous ‘honey’ cake. It’s a deep, dark brown, sticky and moist cake laced with local spices and nuts.

In the historic Reid Palace Hotel, I guiltily enjoyed yet another sweet treat. Built in the years after British colonial rule, the hotel is an elegant sanctuary, surrounded by majestic gardens. As a once-historic port and stop-off between Africa and South America the plants, flowers and fruits of the world came to Madeira by boat, and many of them stayed in the gardens of the Reid Palace Hotel. Afternoon tea on the terrace here is unmissable. For an hour, I felt like a British diplomat who’d just arrived on the island back in 1891 for the hotel’s grand opening. Views of palm trees, a tropical garden and the azure horizon stretch out in front of me as the perfect backdrop to cream cakes, pastel de nata custard tarts and some very British scones.

The capital Funchal is a wonderful place to base yourself. Its vibrant, narrow streets are lined with flowers which spiral from lofty heights right down to the Atlantic. There’s an abundance of grand old forts, convents and churches that lend serious gravitas to this wedge of Portuguese territory in the middle of the ocean. When the balmy evenings and cool sea breezes arrive, dining on Madeira is nearly always al fresco. There are town squares everywhere packed with tables, as well as clifftop perches, stalls on the wide beachfronts and local restaurants tucked into narrow, cobblestoned passageways.

View from Reid’s Palace overlooking the town of Funchal. Photo: James Loveday.

View from Reid’s Palace overlooking the town of Funchal. Photo: James Loveday.

Upon entering an establishment, you’ll usually be served a Poncha, which is a local rum mixed with a variety of fruit juices. This is before you move onto the Madeiran or Portuguese wine selection. The scary looking black scabbardfish is ubiquitous on menus here, as is the delicious skewered beef called espetada. But with fresh produce so prolific, my most memorable meal was a local tomato soup with poached egg and a grilled squash stuffed with cheese.

Nun’s Valley

You could live on Madeira for a century and still not taste all its flavours. I visited one last town during my stay called Curral das Freiras or ‘Nun’s Valley.’ Here, in a dramatic fold in the mountains, the locals have for generations built their lives around the chestnut tree. Chestnut soup, chestnut salads, chestnut pies and chestnut cakes are served on every corner, as is the very popular chestnut liquor. And as I sit on a roof deck chewing on a chestnut cake and gazing over the forest in Nun’s Valley, the clouds once again drift over the island’s mountainous peaks and the chimes of the local bell tower ring out and echo across the valley. It was the perfect confluence of nature, fresh produce and isolation in that moment, which solidified in my mind just how much food and life is inextricably linked on this delicious volcanic outcrop.

Immerse and enlighten all your senses aboard a Hurtigruten Expeditions Madeira voyage.