Madeira: A Portuguese Paradise
The journey to lunch could hardly be more dramatic. As you look 300 metres down a sheer cliff face, the might of the Atlantic crashing on the rocky coastline below, you spot terracotta-roofed buildings scattered among impossibly green vineyards. The cliffs continue in a dramatic sweep up the coast, unchanged for millennia since this magnificent island was born from a vast undersea volcanic eruption.
We are somewhere called both the “island of eternal spring” and the “garden island”—Ilha Jardim in Portuguese, otherwise known as Madeira. Around a 90-minute flight southwest from Lisbon, or three-and-a-half hours to London, Paris, and Amsterdam, this archipelago stuns the first-time visitor with truly awe-inspiring landscapes, legendary wine, and a genuine, homely food culture that makes the most of the island’s rich volcanic soil.
But first, that lunch. The cliffs of Fajã dos Padres are a 20-minute drive from the capital, Funchal, but a world away from what passes for Madeira’s only city. The descent to the vineyards and beachside restaurant below used to involve a terrifying-looking rudimentary lift, jokingly called “the fridge” by locals. Mercifully, today there is a German cable car that whisks you silently up and down in just three minutes.
On arrival, you’re greeted with 13 hectares of gardens that’ll make chefs and home cooks alike weep with envy. Given the subtropical location, there are mango and fig trees with so much fruit that their branches almost touch the floor, a rainbow of citrus fruits, papaya, passionfruit, huge black aubergines and herbs absolutely everywhere. Bird-of-paradise plants fight for space with Surinam cherry trees and wildflowers at every turn, pollinated by countless bees and butterflies, while multicoloured lizards dart in and out. Most of all, it’s the vines of Malvasia (or Malmsey) grapes, which were first planted by Jesuits in the 16th century, uniquely surviving the ravages of phylloxera and still producing to this day in the form of some of the island’s very best Madeira wine.
Most unusually, the vines are planted all the way up to the shoreline, meaning that they get watered partly by the spray of waves crashing in. A talk with the delightful winemaker Mario leads to a glass of the 2001 that he pours by reaching into the barrel with an ancient wooden stick with a scoop on the end, just enough to whet the appetite for lunch in a restaurant five minutes’ walk along the coastal path.
To start, incredible limpets known as lapas, served in a decadent and delicious lemon butter sauce; there’s garlic bread called bolo de caco to mop it up. It’s made partly with sweet potatoes and thus dense like soda bread—and all the better for it. The lapas only thrive in the cleanest waters, hence the wild and rich surrounds of the Atlantic Ocean are the perfect source, along with astonishingly good seafood of every description.
That includes enormous tuna that’s big and ruby-red enough to make Tsukiji vendors jealous. The preparation is simplicity itself: a thick steak grilled with olive oil, garlic and a zingy salsa verde. It’s served atop impeccable vegetables including cherry tomatoes, carrots, red peppers, and spinach that had surrounded us just a few minutes prior on our walk to the restaurant. To crown the rustic but beautiful plating is an elegant yellow flower, while the shore behind, with its gardens and cliffs, makes for the perfect backdrop.
PEAKS AND PERKS
The experience at Fajã dos Padres comes through Belmond Reid’s Palace in Funchal, a historic and elegant luxury hotel that has been welcoming guests since 1891, including the likes of Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw and Gregory Peck. The restaurant also curates the opportunity to sample “sunrise above the clouds,” which involves climbing 1,818 metres to the summit of the Pico do Arieiro, Madeira’s third-highest peak.
Fortunately, the climb happens in a 4x4 Jeep, winding up and through pre-sunrise mist until you find yourself literally above the clouds. The experience is nothing short of extraordinary—at least on a clear and sunny day, as we enjoyed—partly because the mountains are clad in striking conical purple flowers called echium candicans, better known as “pride of Madeira.” More than that, though, it’s the variety of jagged mountain landscapes everywhere you look as the sun rises and a sea of clouds beneath slowly reveals them.
To cap it all, a true Portuguese breakfast of champions awaits, served down the mountain in a clearing surrounded by pine trees. The table is already groaning with pastries and breads, coffee, juices, fruit, yoghurts, local ham, chouriço sausage, and cheeses when the butler (who has driven up separately to prepare your feast) proceeds to pop open the champagne—at a quarter to eight in the morning.
Belmond Reid’s Palace is unquestionably Madeira’s most luxurious property, but the island features countless other accommodation and dining options at a wide range of price points. One dish frequently seen on menus is mariscada: seafood rice that’s heaving with fresh fish, lobster, clams, shrimp and mussels in a sauce usually heavy with smoky Portuguese paprika. The quality of the local seafood meant that every version I tried was sensational.
A standout version came at the intriguingly named Golden Gate Grand Café in the heart of Funchal’s charming old town. That’s partly because it’s been in business, in one form or another, since 1841. Its first-floor balcony is especially charming, overlooking the cobbled streets below. Given the long love affair between Great Britain and Madeira (in the 18th century, Madeira was the most prestigious wine available in the English-speaking world), there’s also a proclivity for British-style afternoon tea, complete with decadent cakes.
Another traditional speciality is espetada—namely, beef skewered on a stick of laurel before being seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, and bay leaves. It’s roasted on a brazier over charcoal or wood chips, and then served on its sustainable skewer, making it sensational eating for committed carnivores. To accompany are decadent fried potatoes, rice, and the aforementioned bolo de caco garlic bread or milho frito (fried polenta squares) that act as the perfect sponge for the meat’s juices. A fine rendition can be had on the terrace at the Atlantic Restaurant, aptly overlooking the ocean.
Caldo verde is much better than its slightly uninspiring “green soup” translation suggests. It’s frequently made with kale, spinach, and cavolo nero cabbage, but vegetarians need to beware, as it invariably also includes nuggets of pork. Another bowl to warm the soul is acorda, rich with garlic, cilantro, and chunk of bread that give it heft. Even in the considerable heat of summer— Madeira is only 300 miles from the coast of Morocco—it’s a welcome kaleidoscope of big flavours.
Ultimately, Madeira is a very special island in a corner of Europe still rarely visited by travellers from Asia. It’s perhaps most well known as the childhood home of superstar footballer Cristiano Ronaldo but increasingly, its jaw-dropping landscapes, laid-back vibe and delicious local produce look set to change that.