I rarely thought about Madeira island as a beautiful touristic destination, but usually, day dreamed of a lazy afternoon, overlooking the Atlantic and munching on plates full of delicious Madeira cake. Little I knew that this cake speciality does not originate from the Madeira Islands and in fact, it got its name due to Madeira wine which used to be served with the cake, in England. Furthermore, when I ordered some Madeira Cake as a desert in Funchal, I received a sticky, dark, honey cake, similar to the British Christmas Pudding, called bolo de mel: the authentic Madeira Cake. That was the day I realized I knew far too little about Madeira food specialities and so, I decided to go on a food tour offered by local experts: Madeira Food on Foot.
I met up with Lina, one of the food tour guides. After a short introduction, she made me feel incredibly welcome and got me all excited about the upcoming local foods and drinks I was about to try. It was an early June afternoon, the streets of Funchal were lit up by the warm sunshine. Everyone was getting ready for the Festival Do Atlantico, a festival marking the beginning of the summer festivities on the island. There was colourful decoration throughout Funchal and many offerings to the Gods in anticipation of health and happiness.
Our food tour started in a relaxed establishment called Arte Cafe. An artistic and inviting little space for people to admire art, purchase good and have a conversation over fresh lemongrass tea and traditional Portuguese tarts, pastel de nata. It was in this cafe that I had the chance to ask both Madeira Food on Foot owners what drove them to create this incredibly ingenious business. Both ladies have been tour guides for over 20 years. Their expertise, together with their passion for local cuisine, drove them to create a special place for tourists, off the beaten track and far from any restaurant trap. They wanted to show the world what is like to enjoy the true Madeira food specialities. After several months of careful planning, a new concept in Madeira was born: the Exquisite Food on Foot tour.
In the spirit of celebration, the tour took me to Fábrica Santo Antonio, a secret biscuit shop in Funchal, where most locals purchase their bolo del mel, sugar cane biscuits and traditional jams. Entering this old fashion shop seemed like a time portal to me. The moment I stepped in, I almost forgot I was on the eternal Spring Islands, as the sweet smell made me think of Christmas childhood memories. The whole place was tastefully decorated, with old-school wicker baskets filled with sweet goods: an absolute joy to look at. I could taste generations of crafting which went into the making of the most outstanding biscuits I ever tried.
In June, it's snowing in Funchal, but not with the kind of traditional northern snowflakes, but with small yellow petals. It's an extraordinary sight, which immediately made me think of a differently coloured Japanese hanami. Together with the mild scent of Jasmine evoked by tiny trees dotted all along the streets, I felt like walking through a dream made of colour and perfume.
Having reached our third destination, my daydreams got painted over by the vivid and vibrant Funchal market. A busy and energetic place, where Madeirans and tourist alike make their way from stall to stall to buy and photograph local produce. This is where I tried more passion fruit varieties than I even knew existed: pineapple passion fruit, lime passion fruit, tomato passion fruit, as well as locally grown tiny bananas and peach-mango. After tasting dried hibiscus, aloe vera and delicious nuts, I sat down with Lina at one of Funchal's beloved sandwich places, located right outside the market. Story has it that the owner managed to gain his reputation by selling over 15000 sandwiches during one Christmas period. The demand comes from the way he prepares and cooks the meat, in Madeira wine. Even the bread is well thought through as it is of course, a Madeira food speciality called bulla pão.
I followed Lina's footsteps to the fourth stop: a cozy restaurant with a cellar like decor, O ginjinhas. I briefly spoke with the owner, a nice chap interested in providing tourists and locals alike with the best food and cherry liquors in Funchal. This is exactly how he managed to create a positive reputation for himself and his establishment.
As I settled at the table, the waitress brought out a deliciously looking chorizo sausage, poured some alcohol on it and lit it up. I imagined this sort of food show could only happen in expensive Michelin star restaurants. Who knew I would be able to get such impressive experience on a small island in the middle of the Atlantic?
After eating what I called the best chorizo I've ever tasted, the food guide, Lina, announced proudly that it's time to finish the glass of wine, so I could try one of the most ingenious Madeiran inventions: the ginjinhas. The ginjinhas is a strong cherry liqueur served in an edible chocolate cup.
Did someone say eat, drink and be merry? I only needed two of these Madeira specialties and got totally addicted to what I would call an open cherry liqueur bonbon!
The fifth stop was in a Scandinavian decorated restaurant, Taberna Madeira, owned by an architect who poured her soul into creating a place which doesn't just look good, but serves some of the best food in Funchal. It was there that I tried the espada, a Madeiran eel like sea creature, with large eyes and sharp teeth. It is said that it can only be caught at night, hence the locals needs a lot of courage and knowledge to be able to conquer the Atlantic over and over. Some say that this is how poncha came to be. As the Madeira wine was not spirited enough to invoke the Dutch courage in all these fishermen, some created a rum based mix which warmed the spirits during night time.
No proper Madeira food guide could exist without a taste of the poncha at the Flair Spot, a local bar opened a year ago. The owner, a smiling lad with serious bartending and joggling skills, crafted an orange based poncha, which smelled and looked stunning. The colorful menu grabbed my attention not just because of the low prices, but because of the fascinating cocktail variation, including the Madeira Mojito, made with locally grown passion fruit. Yum!
A few cocktails later, I was on my way to the last stop as part of the Food on Foot tour, which was at the extraordinary Restaurante do Forte, a fancy looking place, located in one of the most beautiful spots in Funchal, overlooking the crystal clear ocean. The food fireworks ended with a sensational explosion of several cheeses, served alongside Madeira wine. Nothing better than finishing a brilliant food tour with cheese, gigantic grapes and delicious relishes. Clearly, the locals in Madeira have a sense of what culinary perfection really is.
What I loved most about Madeira Food on Foot is that I got an introduction not just into the local Madeira food specialties, but into the real local way of life. I might have never known the difference between the English and the Portuguese version of the Madeira Cake, or learned what type of Madeira wine to partner with my food, and might have never been compelled to try poncha or ask for some real Madeira recipes.
They say love goes through your stomach, and nowhere this saying is more true than in the capital city of the Madeira islands, where in order to understand how the locals do it, you have to eat, drink and be merry with the Madeira food guide: Exquisite Food on Foot.
Over to you now: Do you have any upcoming plans to visit Madeira? Will you go on a food tour? Tell me all about it in the comments section bellow.