Tropical beauty and pastel sunsets are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to exploring the Portuguese island of Madeira. This hidden gem in the middle of the Atlantic is home to some incredible cuisine that dazzled our senses of sight, smell and taste from morning till night. We’re so excited to share our first guide to experiencing Portugal ⌲ 7 Delectable Flavors: Eating & Drinking on Madeira Island.
In This Post:
- Espada com Banana
- Cerveja da Madeira
- Bolo do Caco
- Vinha da Madeira
For centuries, Poncha has been lifting the spirits locals and bringing glasses together for joyous cheers of “SAÚDE!” that resonate across the Atlantic. This local beverage offers a delicious blend of sweet, tart & alcoholic, and functions well as a mid-afternoon refreshment, after-dinner digestif or anything in between. It’s also said to cure the common cold and heal a sore throat, so don’t hesitate to have a glass if you’re exhibiting cold-like symptoms!
how it’s made: a blend of aguardiente (distilled alcohol made from sugar cane juice), honey, sugar & lemon juice are muddled together with a mexelote (more commonly known as a caralhinho). Other fruits – such as passion fruit, tangerine or tomato – may also be added.
where to find it: Taberna da Poncha is the best place to find the authentic Poncha experience. Nestled along the side of the highway in Ribeira Brava (20 minutes from Funchal), this timeless tavern offers the perfect blend of local charm, off-the-beaten-path privacy, and lively crowds. Peanut shells cover the floor, business cards line the walls and bartenders mix up delicious Poncha right before your eyes.
travelhelix trivia: originally made with five ingredients (alcohol, sugar, lemon, water, and tea or spices), many believe Poncha is based on an Indian drink called pãnch which means “five” in Hindi. Over the years, Madeira’s habitants added honey. Some also consider Madeiran Poncha as the inspiration behind English “punch” and the Brazilian caipirinha. Quite the international beverage!
Taberna da Poncha, Ribeira Brava.
- Espada com Banana
In Portuguese, espada translates to “sword,” but Espada Preta looks nothing like the “swordfish” you are picturing right now. Defined by disproportionately large, bulging eyes, long razor sharp teeth, and a slender eel-like body, the black scabbardfish seems better suited to play the role of a horror movie villain than a culinary delicacy. We assure you though: if you can see past the rough exterior, it will be love at first bite.
how it’s made: the regional delicacy Espada com Banana (black scabbardfish with banana) involves a simple preparation: the fish is filleted and seasoned with lemon, salt, pepper and garlic, then lightly fried in very hot oil. It’s traditionally topped with Madeira’s famous “small bananas,” fried in the same pan as the fish (similar to what you’ll find in many Caribbean plantain preparations).
where to find it: everywhere on the island
travelhelix trivia: black scabbardfish generally live in depths between 600 feet to 1 mile (180 m to 1.7 km), making them extremely difficult to catch via traditional fishing methods. Madeiran fishermen must use specialized lines & techniques to catch these elusive, deepwater predators.
Roughly 15 minutes west of Funchal lies Câmara de Lobos, a small fishing village of less than 40k people. Home to both #3 and #4 on our list, this charming coastal town is the birthplace of one of the most delicious and refreshing beverages we’ve come across: the Nikita. Essentially an “adult milkshake,” the traditional Nikita contains vanilla or pineapple ice cream mixed with pineapple juice, white wine and beer. Admittedly, it sounded crazy to us at first, but after one sip, we were convinced.
how it’s made: place two scoops of either vanilla or pineapple ice cream into a blender. Add the pineapple juice, fresh chunks of pineapple, white wine & beer and blend with the ice cream until it becomes creamy. Prefer it sweeter? Add sugar and re-blend. For a non-alcoholic Nikita: use non-alcoholic beer and remove the white wine.
where to find it: we enjoyed ours at Casa do Farol in Câmara de Lobos, but don’t worry if you don’t make it all the way out to the small village: you’ll find Nikita on the menu in many bars and pubs around the island.
travelhelix trivia: the origin of the drink’s name is related to Elton John’s song Nikita which was a global hit and top-10 song in many countries the same year the drink was created: 1985.
Another signature dish that can be found in many places on the island is Espetada: skewers of meat smothered in garlic and grilled to perfection. In Madeira, the skewers are made from local bay laurel trees and depending on the restaurant, your meat skewer may be served hanging from a hook on a stand. You’ll choose your meat, and although chicken, squid or even fish may be available, beef and pork (or a mixture of the two) are most common. The most important rule of Espetada: there’s no such thing as too much garlic!
how it’s made: the selected meat is cut into cubes, seasoned with salt, pepper & garlic, skewered on bay laurel skewers, and then grilled over hot coals or wood chips. Pieces of bell pepper, onion, and chorizo are sometimes placed between the meat pieces. Milho frito, fried squares or triangles of polenta, are used to soak up the juices of the meat. The dish is usually accompanied by white rice, potatoes or salad.
where to find it: although originally from Câmara de Lobos, you’ll find Espetada all around the island.
travelhelix trivia: Espetada is actually a Portuguese term used to describe the technique of cooking food on skewers, although the word is used colloquially to describe the dish itself.
- Cerveja da Madeira
A universal truth of travel is that hot afternoons are best combatted with cold beverages. Wandering through the Bay of Funchal, we stopped for an impromptu beer at BeerHouse Madeira, and were extremely impressed with the menu, the quality of the food, and most importantly, their homebrew. Whether you find yourself in need of a quick cold one or a full meal, BeerHouse is a great stop.
how it’s made: “The beer produced on these premises contains only rye malt, hops, water and yeast. We do not use any chemical products, such as antioxidants, preservatives, froth stabilizers or artificial colors. We make our beer using traditional methods because we believe that beer plays an important role in human nutrition, and so we make it in accordance with the oldest law of nutrition: the German “Reinheitsgebot” of 1516.”
where to find it: BeerHouse Madeira in Funchal
travelhelix trivia: you tell us! Email a Portuguese beer fact to email@example.com by March 31, 2018. Our favorite beer fact will be featured on social media!
- Bolo do Caco
It’s a common custom in restaurants and bars throughout the world to serve patrons “a little something” before they begin eating or drinking. In many restaurants: bread with butter, olive oil or tapenade. In some bars: a bucket of chips, pretzels or popcorn. When dining in Madeira: it’s almost certain that a basket of warm, homemade Bolo do Caco (Madeiran garlic bread) will be served before or along with your meal.
In Portuguese, bolo = cake and caco = the flat basalt stone slab that it is cooked on. Its typically served with garlic butter but can also be used to make a sandwich with the meat of your choice. Considered by many to be the cornerstone of Madeiran cuisine, there’s really no wrong way to enjoy it!
how it’s made: a round piece of wheat flour dough is left to sour for a few days (1-3) and then placed on an extremely hot basalt stone slab to bake. The cooked round bread is cut once horizontally, then slathered with butter + garlic + herbs, then cut two more times vertically, resulting in 6 pieces.
where to find it: most tascas (traditional Portuguese restaurants) around the island
travelhelix trivia: the middle pieces are the best!
- Vinha da Madeira
Madeira wine is produced from approximately 5 distinct grapes and sold as either Dry, Medium Dry, Medium Sweet or Sweet. The island has a long winemaking history, dating back to the end of the 15th century, and we were blessed to experience all of these wonderful flavors in 4 short days.
how it’s made: a unique winemaking process utilizes heat to produce a robust “fortified wine” that can be enjoyed long after the bottle has been opened, like the more well-known “Port” wine from Oporto.
where to find it: everywhere
travelhelix trivia: Madeira Wine was used to toast the signing of the American Declaration of Independence in 1776!
Prior to our arrival, we knew Madeira island as being famous for two things: Cristiano Ronaldo and Madeiran wine. Four days later, we left Madeira having learned slightly more about Madeira wine, so much more about the island’s unique culinary delicacies, and nothing else about Cristiano Ronaldo.
Come to Madeira, and enjoy all that this wonderful island has to offer.