Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Madeira - more than just cake

I've had a holiday. In Madeira. My usual three aims of a trip abroad are meandering round cities exploring museums, churches and other places of interest, hiking and walking, and food. Ah, yes, food.

I was mostly disappointed in Madeira's culinary offering (the eponymous sponge cake is not actually from Madeira, by the way). I had quite a few meals best summed up as meh, not least because many local dishes were not very interesting and side vegetables were generally cooked to disintegration point.

The local scabbard appears abundantly on menus in a variety of styles. It's mostly served deep-fried in batter and served with banana, or cooked in a sauce with tropical fruit. The latter was how I tried it (no pic) - the fish was mushy and overcooked and hard to find under the creamy, gloopy sauce. I couldn't identify the fruit - it might have been mango, or apricot, or papaya. Who knows?

The other famous local dish is espetada - cubes of fillet beef barbecued on a laurel stick.
The first time I tried it, the meat was overcooked and sinuous. But then I found a decent restaurant (O Portao in Funchal) that served this - beautiful tender, rare beef, a chef sauce to a secret (I asked!) recipe that really zinged and crunchy veg. A win.

I also had the grilled limpets at O Portao, cooked with butter and garlic. Limpets also appear in risottos in Madeira, as with the fresh tuna I had in Seixal - if you like mussels, you'll like them.
I also tried the hunter's rabbit stew at O Portao - another winner. A whole small rabbit jointed and cooked in a piquant tomato-based sauce with rice, cabbage and veg. This was possibly my favourite meal, although the huge pub lunch of beef in Madeira sauce with chips was also pretty damn good.

Out and about, the best street food I had was in the hills above Monte, where a cook was baking flatbreads stuffed with chouri├žo on a metal sheet over a gas flame. Slathered in freshly made garlic butter, they made a filling snack for just €2.
The local poncha was disappointing - while called "rum", the alcohol content is a mere 25% and it's so sweet you don't feel like you're getting a hit of anything.
Much more interesting was my exploration of Madeira wine. A trip to Blandy's was on the cards - in 45 minutes I'd learned all about grape varietals, fermentation processes (very different to sherry) and styles. I'd always found Madeira wine to be too sweet so I was pleased to discover that the style made with the sercial grape is really dry.

And so to the real Madeira cake - the bolo de mel (literally honey bread), made from molasses from the sugar cane that grows abundantly on the island plus honey and fruits. Light, spicy and crumbly, it knocks spots off its imposter.