Portugal’s Madeira Island is a place of tropical beauty and pastel sunsets that’ll take your breath away. But after spending 4 days there, it seems like the island’s true undiscovered secret (or at least, under-discussed secret), is its rich & diverse culinary offering.
Madeira is home to some incredible cuisine that dazzled our senses of sight, smell and taste from morning till night. From grilled meat to fresh fish to the signature garlic bread that’s served with every meal, you’ll eat well on Madeira Island.
Welcome to Madeira Island. Let’s see what’s on the menu…
1. Poncha (no translation–it’s just poncha!)
This specialty of Madeira Island has been lifting local spirits for centuries. Poncha offers a delicious blend of sweet, tart & alcoholic. It works as a mid-afternoon refreshment, after-dinner digestif or anything in between.
According to locals, poncha cures the common cold and heals a sore throat. We aren’t doctors, and we’re not gonna argue with that. Saúde!
- ingredients: classic poncha has honey, sugar, lemon juice & aguardiente (distilled alcohol made from sugar cane juice). From there, add other fruits like passion fruit, tangerine or tomato.
- preparation: muddle it all together with a Madeiran mexelote.
- origin: some say poncha is based on the Indian pãnch, because it was originally made with 5 ingredients: alcohol, sugar, lemon, water & tea/spices. In Hindi, pãnch → “five.”
- inspiration: others claim poncha inspired both the English punch and the Brazilian caipirinha.
- where to find it: Taberna da Poncha is the hotspot for the authentic poncha experience. Nestled alongside the highway in Ribeira Brava, 20 minutes from Funchal, this timeless tavern offers the perfect blend of local charm and lively crowds. Peanut shells cover the floor, business cards line the walls and bartenders mix up fresh poncha, however you like it.
2. Espada com Banana (black scabbardfish with banana)
In Portuguese, espada → “sword.” But don’t get it twisted: the espada preta of Madeira Island isn’t your typical swordfish.
The black scabbardfish has huge bulging eyes, long razor sharp teeth, and a slender eel-like body. It looks more like a horror movie villain than a culinary delicacy. But we assure you: if you can see past the rough exterior, it’ll be love at first bite.
- preparation: fillet the fish, season with lemon, salt, pepper & garlic, then lightly fry it in very hot oil.
- served with: fry up a few of Madeira’s famous “small bananas” then toss ’em on top of the fish.
- tough catch: black scabbardfish can live 1 mile below sea level, making it really hard for Madeiran fishermen to snag these elusive, deepwater predators. Also makes them that much more delicious!
- where to find it: many tascas (traditional Portuguese restaurants) around the island. We ate it twice. Both incredible. Photos below!
3. Nikita (an “adult milkshake”)
The charming fishing village of Câmara de Lobos is home to both #3 and #4 on our list.
Who says milkshakes are just for kids? Not these guys! And apparently, we’re not alone.
About 30 years ago, some local Madeiran geniuses decided to add wine and beer to their pineapple milkshakes. Behold: the Nikita. It sounded crazy to us at first, but after one sip, we were convinced.
Elton John’s song Nikita was a global top-10 hit in 1985–the same year its homonymous beverage counterpart was conceived. Coincidence? We drink not. NIKITA!!! (grabs drink; uses as microphone)
- ingredients: vanilla or pineapple ice cream, pineapple juice, fresh pineapple, white wine & beer.
- preparation: blend the ice cream in a blender. Add the other stuff. Blend again ’til it’s all creamy.
- sweet tooth? add sugar and re-blend.
- on the wagon? use non-alcoholic beer and ditch the white wine.
- where to find it: Câmara de Lobos is the Nikita’s hometown. We sipped at Casa do Farol.
4. Espetada (grilled meat skewers)
If you love meat and garlic and more meat and more garlic, you’ll love Madeiran espetada.
Madeiran bay laurel trees provide the wooden skewers. Local animals provide the meat. Beef and pork (or a mixture of the two) are the most common options. Chicken, squid or fish may also be on the menu.
Most important rule of espetada: there’s no such thing as too much garlic!
- preparation: cube the meat and season with salt, pepper & garlic. Skewer with slices of bell pepper, onion & chorizo (optional). Grill over hot coals or wood chips.
- served with: milho frito–fried pieces of polenta–soak up the juices of the meat.
- let the meat hang! depending on the restaurant, your meat skewer may be served hanging from a hook.
- where to find it: many restaurants on Madeira. We ate at Casa do Farol, Câmara de Lobos.
5. Cerveja da Madeira (Madeira beer)
When in foreign lands, hot afternoons are best combatted with cold beverages. This is a universal truth of travel.
Wandering through the Bay of Funchal, we stopped for an impromptu beer at BeerHouse Madeira. Their homebrew helped us defeat the afternoon heat.
- ingredients: “…only rye malt, hops, water and yeast. We do not use any chemical products, such as antioxidants, preservatives, froth stabilizers or artificial colors.”
- preparation: “We make our beer using traditional methods because we believe that beer plays an important role in human nutrition…”
- so far, so good! what else? “…and so we make it in accordance with the oldest law of nutrition: the German ‘Reinheitsgebot’ of 1516.”
Again — we aren’t doctors. But it sounds like drinking beer from BeerHouse Madeira may be a healthy decision. Saúde!
6. Bolo do Caco (Madeiran garlic bread)
Bread & butter. Maybe some olive oil & vinegar. A nice tapenade. Even the most basic bucket of popcorn from a busy bartender. “A little somethin’ on the house” is a custom we all love–and many of us have come to expect–when dining out.
On Madeira Island, it’s almost certain that a warm basket of homemade bolo do caco will find its way to your table before your meal. Many consider this local, Madeiran garlic bread to be the cornerstone of Madeiran cuisine. Eat it solo or use it to make a sandwich. There’s really no wrong way to enjoy it.
The middle pieces are the best!
- preparation: a round piece of wheat flour dough sours for 1-3 days, then bakes on a hot basalt stone slab.
- how it’s served: cut the cooked round bread once horizontally. Slather the inner surfaces with butter, garlic & herbs, then cut twice more vertically. Toss the resulting 6 pieces in a basket and enjoy.
- translation: in Portuguese, bolo → “cake” and caco → “the stone slab” that it’s cooked on.
- where to find it: everywhere on the island.
7. Vinha da Madeira (Madeira wine)
What, you thought we forgot?!
Madeira’s celebrated winemaking history dates back to the 15th century. Today, 5 grapes produce Madeira wine, which is sold as Dry, Medium Dry, Medium Sweet or Sweet. We were blessed to experience all of these wonderful styles in 4 short days.
Madeira Wine was used to toast the signing of the American Declaration of Independence in 1776!
- how it’s made: a unique process involving heat produces this robust “fortified wine.”
- long-lasting: like “Port wine” from Oporto, Madeira wine is still good long after the bottle is opened.
- where to find it: everywhere.
Let’s recap: what have we learned?
Prior to our arrival, we recognized Madeira Island as being famous for two things: Cristiano Ronaldo and Madeira wine.
Four days later, we left Madeira having learned:
- slightly more about Madeira wine.
- so much more about the island’s unique culinary delicacies.
- nothing else about Cristiano Ronaldo.
Visit Madeira, and enjoy all that this wonderful island has to offer.