Rock stars – a gourmet guide to Madeira - Portugal

Where to stay

Aqua Natura Clifftop hotel overlooking the natural volcanic rock swimming pools of Porto Moniz. Well-equipped rooms, the wellness zone and gym all have Atlantic views. Doubles from £113. Rotunda da Piscina 3, Porto Moniz, 00 351 291 640 100,

Belmond Reid’s Palace Hotel Legendary pink stucco hotel with historic links to the wine trade, set in magnificent gardens. Guests were once brought up the cliffs by hammock and elegant traditions are maintained, such as afternoon tea served on the terrace in bespoke Wedgwood china. Doubles from £292. Estrada Monumental 139, Funchal, 00 351 291 717 171,

Sé Boutique Hotel Stylish, art-oriented small hotel in the Old Town a few quiet steps from the Cathedral. The pretty rooftop bar has 360-degree views and excellent cocktails. Doubles from £67. Tv. do Cabido 17, Funchal, 00 351 291 224 444,

The Vine Award-winning luxury homage to vine and wine. Urban chic styling plus excellent food, spa and rooftop pool with a spectacular view of Funchal, the port and bay. Doubles from £81. Rua das Aranhas 27A, Funchal, 00 351 291 000,

Travel Information

Madeira, an archipelago of four islands, is an autonomous region of Portugal that sits just off the northwest coast of Africa, has a subtropical climate, volcanic terrain and lush green mountains. Currency is the euro and time is one hour ahead of GMT. Flights from the UK take just under four hours.


British Airways flies direct from London Heathrow and Gatwick to Funchal’s Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport.
easyJet offers direct flights from London Gatwick, Bristol and Manchester Airport to Funchal.


Discover Madeira is the regional tourist board and is full of information to help you plan your trip.
Visit Portugal, the country’s official tourist board, is also worth checking out.

Where to eat

Prices are for a three-course meal for two people with a bottle of wine, unless otherwise stated

Avista In a beautifully landscaped seafront setting within the five-star Les Suites at The Cliff Bay hotel, the menu is overseen by chef Benoit Sinth of two-Michelin starred Il Gallo d’Oro. Mediterranean and Asian influences, plus a Josper grill, combine to showcase top local produce. From £85. Estrada Monumental 145, Funchal, 00 351 291 707 770,

Chalet Vicente Polished old-school style with classic dishes such as limpets in garlic butter and beef loin espetada (kebab) cooked on or off the bone, followed by their famous chocolate pudding. From £52. Estrada Monumental 238, Funchal, 00 351 291 765 818,

O Calhau Smart contemporary restaurant, tapas bar and café with outside seating in a traffic-free street. Tapas might include fresh cheese crostini with sugar cane syrup and avocado. Tapas from £6. Rua João Gago 2, Funchal, 00 351 291 221 717,

Prima Caju Healthy, delicious and inexpensive food in a lively setting within the boutique Caju Le Petit Hotel designed by Nini Andrade Silva. From £25. Rua da Carreira 108, Funchal, 00 351 291 106 600,

Quinta do Furão Comfortable hotel restaurant with views over a wild, rugged coastline. Homemade bread accompanies an excellent choice of refined traditional dishes. Their own vineyard comes complete with en-suite swimming pool. From £70. Achada do Gramacho, Santana, 00 351 291 507 100,

Sabores do Curral With views over the spectacular Nun’s Valley, the airy terraced restaurant serves local chestnuts in soup, with pork loin, and tofu with chestnut purée for vegetarians. There’s also espetada and scabbard fish. The chestnut cream pastries are a speciality. From £35. Caminho da Igreja 1, Curral das Freiras, 00 351 291 712 257

Vantastic Food truck in Funchal. The Van Man, Ruben Freitas, moves around, but for a healthy alfresco feast it’s worth tracking him down. Breakfast bowl, from £4.30.

Vila do Peixe Overlooking the fishing village much painted by Churchill, a superb selection of fresh fish and seafood is laid out next to the wood-fired range, and the ponchas are the real deal. An alternative to fish is a beautifully dry-aged meat grill from their twin restaurant next door. From £86. Estrada Dr João Abel de Freitas, Câmara de Lobos, 00 351 291 099 909,

The Wanderer This is restaurant cooking redefined. But you have to be quick, before The Wanderer lives up to his name and moves on. Eight-course tasting menu with drinks, £107pp. Centro Comercial Olimpo, Av do Infante, Funchal, 00 351 915 682872,

Food Glossary

Salt cod
Bife de atum
Tuna steak
Bolo de mel
Traditional cake, literally ‘honey cake’
Bolo do caco
Flatbread, often mixed with sweet potato
Broas de mel
Cane syrup biscuits
Local beer
Scabbard fish
Giant beef skewers
Milho frito
Fried polenta cubes
Beer, wine and pineapple ice-cream drink
Porco com vinho e alhos
Pork braised with wine, garlic and herbs
Sharing platter of fried beef cubes on a bed of fries
Rum-based fruit punch
Cheese-filled pastries

Food and Travel Review

The number seven has a special significance in Madeira. Although there have been many famous visitors, from Christopher Columbus to Winston Churchill, there is but one superstar son, Cristiano Ronaldo. If visitors can’t be tempted by a little yellow duck with his shirt number on it, they are invited to at least rub an intimate part of his life-size bronze statue for luck. It’s like throwing your three coins in a fountain but with an extra wink. Not, perhaps, what one might expect in a destination more associated with sedate perambulations in the soft air and soothing sea breeze, but it’s a glimpse of an infectious local joie de vivre and party spirit. Nice but dull, it ain’t. Despite the proximity of the African coast, it is the Portuguese ‘mainland’ that exerts the magnetic pull on this small volcanic island, one of four making up the Madeira archipelago, rising precipitously from the Atlantic. The interior of Madeira Island still has a mythic, dawn-of-time quality: rainbow nation flowers and emerald forests bisected with towering peaks; Tolkienesque gorges and crumpled ravines; charcoal pebble beaches, terrifying cliffs and grey-red rocky basalt outcrops.

Recent years, however, have seen a cultural sea change.

The island is now the focus of myriad adrenaline-rich activities, which means it’s possible to hike above a magical valley of creeping clouds with a soundtrack from the rare sea bird Zino’s petrel, explore a fairy-tale world of lichen moss and ferns, mist and rivers, and then go big-wave surfing in the same day.

In tandem with its commitment to sustainable tourism comes a lively generation of islanders who are reinvigorating its food, art and social life. In many areas, women are leading the way, having broken the glass ceiling of the traditionally male-dominated wine industry, while avant-garde designers like Nini Andrade Silva have transformed the look of the built environment. Three dynamic young women – aka The Three Cousins – have opened Prima Caju in Funchal’s Old Town with a menu that is a notable exception to the chips with everything tourist cliché (although you can’t deny Madeirans are passionate about potatoes), endearing themselves to locals and visitors who appreciate wraps, sushi and buddha bowls and a funky, fun atmosphere.

Funchal’s erstwhile sedate promenades, inlaid with patterns of black volcanic and white limestone, the manicured gardens draped with drifts of pink blossom, are dotted with street art and contemporary sculptures: the calendar is packed with as many cultural festivals and sporting events as saints’ days.

Nonetheless, it is not necessarily the first place one associates with an extraordinary culinary experience – one where the boundary-pushing, rule-breaking and quite thrilling cooking of a tiny obscure restaurant crashes upon the unsuspecting diner’s palate like the Atlantic waves beyond. Yet here it is.

Selim Latrous is The Wanderer. Like centuries of travellers before him, the half-Tunisian, half-Swiss chef found Madeira a welcoming berth between voyages from all points of the maritime compass. It also helped that he was ‘fond of bananas’, as he says only half-jokingly, especially the sweetly aromatic dwarf Madeira variety.

Completely self-taught ‘from the internet and my own imagination’, Selim opens his one-room, one-table restaurant one night a week for an ever-evolving multi-course menu. It’s rooted in local produce, foraged herbs and flowers, using ingredients such as varieties of mushrooms or berries that, he says, even the locals don’t know about. ‘To my mind, the new luxury is not lobster and foie gras but a carrot from a rural garden harvested in its maturity, then transformed in the kitchen,’ he says. In doing so, he supports young farmers and producers via dishes that match delicacy, intensity and complexity of concept. There are modernist references, but Selim is creating his own one-man culinary show. The result is serious stuff but also homely, honest and friendly.

At the other end of the scale, Ruben Freitas aka ‘The Van Man’ runs the healthy eating Vantastic food truck in Funchal. Bursting with evangelical enthusiasm, he changed his whole attitude to nutrition after suffering a basketball injury. ‘It’s still a challenge to raise awareness, but I want to encourage people to slow down and consider the beautiful landscape and all the wonderful flavours we have here,’ says Ruben. ‘I’ll provide you with a picnic and a blanket so you can go up into the mountains, watch the sun rise and just enjoy life. What could be better?’

Until bees took over his life, Miguel Vieira was a civil engineer. He now makes Flor do Norte honey from hives scattered around the island, and has worked with the University of Madeira to develop a luscious range of multifloral varieties enhanced with walnuts, cinnamon sticks and berries from the Unesco-listed ancient laurel forest that carpets two-thirds of the island. He is happiest when attending the hives: ‘The love of nature is in my heart; with the bees my mind is clear and tranquil. Every morning, I have an orange from my tree and a spoonful of honey. That is happiness,’ he says.

The islanders are proud, industrious, courteous and hospitable. They have had to be exceptionally strong and hardworking to carve out the terraces across the towering terrain and construct the labyrinth of levadas or irrigation canals. These are fed from the dripping, cloud-covered laurels that act like sponges to water the Hobbit-sized plots planted in geometric rows like an edible matrix. Farmers still scale impossible heights by foot to work land that is too narrow and vertiginous for even a donkey, never mind a tractor. It helps to explain why many islanders once travelled as seasonal workers to the steep slopes of Jersey in order to cultivate the new potatoes.

Fertile volcanic soil plus three geographical zones and several micro-climates equal a tiered and profuse system of agriculture in between the neat cubes of terracotta-roofed houses. At the tropical level there are bananas, sugar cane, custard apples, yams, sweet potatoes, avocados, mangoes and 15 types of passion fruit; the Mediterranean level provides figs, oranges, lemons, grapes, prickly pears, maize, wheat, rye and barley; at the ‘European’ level there are cherries, apples, plums and nut trees, plus vines and three crops of incomparable potatoes.

Traditional food is rural and hearty: old school and old world with varying degrees of refinement. In the spectacular Curral das Freiras (Valley of the Nuns), renowned for morello cherries and sweet chestnuts, a morning’s hike would be incomplete without the reviving burn of homemade cherry brandy and a meaty broth of chestnuts and beans as served at the Sabores do Curral. In winter, there are game stews: duck, rabbit, quail, red-legged partridge.

Year-round, espetada – giant charcoal-grilled laurel skewers of beef seasoned with sea salt, garlic and bay leaves – are suspended from hooks at the table like kebabs on steroids.

Ever-present are tomato and onion soup topped with a poached egg; deep-fried cubes of cornmeal; salt cod stews with cabbage; and roasted sweet potatoes drizzled with cane sugar syrup served with bolo do caco (round flatbreads) and garlic butter.

At Funchal’s three-storey art deco farmers’ market, Mercado dos Lavradores, the essential mid-morning snack is a roll filled with pork loin marinated in wine, vinegar, garlic and bay leaves (technically a Christmas speciality but enjoyed year-round). Brave the multi-flavoured assault course of passion and dragon fruit samples, and break cover with a queijada pastry stuffed with cheese and a shot of spine-stiffening coffee - and you might just work up an appetite for lunch, goes the Madeiran joke.

In the airy, tiled fish market the mongers weald piratical blades to dispatch the iridescent parrot fish, bream, red mullet and swordfish, alongside more idiosyncratic seafood flavours like crusty barnacles, giant flying squid, tiny ebony winkles to be steamed with garlic, parsley and chilli, and little limpets in their star-shaped blue shells. But one’s attention is drawn to the macho slabs of harpoon-caught skipjack tuna and many rows of villainous-looking, coppery-black scabbard fish, with long slithery bodies that hang over the counters like cat-o’-nine-tails. Their fanged mouths and menacing stare deceive: the flesh is light and agreeable, usually fried and served with bananas or passion fruit.

In the streets, women proffer bunches of aromatic herbs as they have done for years - thyme, bay, parsley, chamomile. Fennel, from which the city gets its name, grows wild and its essence has been captured in boiled sweets from the Fabrica Santo Antonio since 1893. The family bakery also makes delicate biscuits and a spicy, molasses cake, packed in a box based on an old Huntley & Palmers tin and traditionally served during festivities with a glass of malvasia.

Until recently, however, this was one of the few times locals would actually drink Madeira. As Leandro Gouveia of Barbeito, one of the island’s finest and most forward thinking of the wine houses, explains: ‘In the past the best bottles were always exported, or it was produced in bulk for cooking Madeira sauce. Then it became associated with old people, but increasingly young people have come to understand this wine is unique. The grapes, soil, salty air, gulf stream winds and producer skills combine to make a wine you can’t find anywhere else in the world.’

A handful of English shippers such as Blandy’s have long dominated the transatlantic trade: in the New World Madeira was favoured as a toasting wine by Washington, Hamilton and Jefferson.

Today, thousands of small growers’ vines, packed on tiny plots on near-vertical slopes, climb over pergolas, sheltered by bamboo and broom windbreaks. If cultivation seems improbable, then production breaks all the rules: under-ripe grapes, deliberate heating and oxidisation plus a minimum of 20 years in the barrel before it can be labelled ‘vintage’. Yet the result has been called one of the world’s most mystical and miraculous wines.

Versatility is a clue to its enduring popularity. It can be a dry aperitif or sweet dessert wine (splendid with chocolate) with the flavour spectrum covering nuts, caramel, burnt sugar and citrus peel. A bottle is remarkably long-lasting: a few years ago a 1796 bottle was auctioned for £11,500 – and was still drinkable.

Island rum has also made its mark internationally. The product of an even older plant, sugar cane, it is an essential ingredient of poncha, a frothy, potent drink as emblematic of the island as embroidery and wickerwork. Made with aguardiente, honey, lemon and orange juice, this forerunner of punch and grog dates from colonial times when lemon was preserved in rum to prevent scurvy.

Poncha may now include many other fruity flavours but the golden rule is that it must always be freshly made. They say it cures everything from a cold to a broken heart. And, after four glasses, your Portuguese will be perfect: ‘Saúde e atrás da rede, Cristiano!’ Cheers and back of the net!

Clarissa Hyman and Mark Parren Taylor travelled to Madeira courtesy of Discover Madeira.

This feature was taken from the August/September 2021 issue of Food and Travel.

To subscribe today, click here.

Get Premium access to all the latest content online

Subscribe and view full print editions online... Subscribe