Saturday, February 6, 2016

Six Things You Must Taste in Madeira

If you’re visiting Madeira, get ready for a dizzying amount of sensory input. Visually, this volcanic island located between Portugal and Morocco is one of the most striking and extreme places I’ve seen. The water stays warm all year round, and it feels refreshing and crystal clean on the skin. The scent of sea salt pervades the island, and everywhere you go you can smell someone cooking something delicious. Walking around the main city of Funchal, you’ll hear fast-paced Portuguese interspersed with the Queen’s English from well-off British tourists.

And then there’s the food. Holy shit. You must taste Madeira to know Madeira. Luckily, we need food and drink to survive, and Madeira has an absurd amount of delicious options.

I just returned from a trip to Madeira with several wine enthusiasts and a DC-based restaurateur, and we were all consistently impressed with the quality of the food and the innovation of the dishes. Be prepared to eat often and well.

There are, however, several foods and beverages that should not be missed by any traveler. If you’re visiting Madeira, and you’re a human who consumes food and alcohol, here’s your checklist.


Growing up on the sea and exploring lots of sea food all over the world, I thought I knew a whole lot about ocean life. But lapas were new to me. I’m now a huge fan of these crazy sea creatures.

Lapas (or limpets) are a species of mollusc that grow on the deep underwater cliffs of Madeira. They are similar to barnacles, but have a muscular foot on their underside, which make them capable of minor movement. Here, as the volcanic rock drops off to the cold sea floor, lapas have all they need to grow to impressive size. When removed from the rock, the muscle underneath the shell is big enough to turn into food.

They are both completely different from oysters and similar to oysters in some ways. (One Madeira restaurateur told me locals call them Madeira oysters). They can be consumed raw (unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity) or cooked. They only have a shell on one side, and they are eaten by picking up the shell and sucking out the protein, although they need to be chewed when cooked. Their texture reminds me more of little neck clams, although the flavors of lapas are stronger than most clams I’ve tasted.

The lapas are usually put on the grill in their half-shells. They’re cooked with olive oil or butter, usually with garlic and a simple dose of salt and pepper. The olive oil seems to bring out the natural brininess, while the butter adds a perfect amount of richness to the intense oceanic flavor. Taste both types. Then, the next day, repeat.   

Bolo do Caco

From the Portuguese Breads blog, which has a great recipe here.
This is the bread of Madeira. Eat it. And then eat some more of it. It’s absolutely delicious. It’s made with wheat flour and sweet potato, so the bread has a rich texture and a subtle but sweet earthiness.

I ate Bolo do Caco on six or eight different occasions, and each interpretation was different but wonderful. Some bread was crispy on the outside with a slight char but smooth on the inside. Some were more doughy and soft. Some had been drizzled with olive oil, some dusted with oregano or other spices.

The bread is great on its own, dipped in olive oil or whipped butter, but it’s also a great consistency for sopping up the delicious sauces from the main course.

Scabbard Fish

If you get a chance to check out the fish market in Funchal, do it! So cool to see these crazy-ass sea monsters in person.

The scabbard fish is one ugly sonofabitch. I never knew such a bad-ass sea beast existed.

Even though Madeira is an island in the middle of the Atlantic, it has relatively few options when it comes to fish. The waters around the island drop off quickly and deeply — there are not many reefs or shallow waters conducive to diverse fish life. Fisherman venture out for grouper and tuna, but these fish are not nearly as prominent or plentiful as the scabbard.

The people of Madeira are very proud of this fish. Considering it lives in such a unique environment, the fish is something of a Madeira native itself, and the connection between the people and this fish is strong. Madeirans serve scabbard fish in many ways and use all of its parts — the roe is white (and delicious) and the heads are used for a tasty fish soup. The flesh is tender and tastes salty, briny and delicious. Because the fish is so common, most everyone cooks it well. This is not a dish you’re likely to find in many other places, so be sure to check it out.

Passion Fruit

A typical Madeira fruit stand has all sorts of incredible stuff, including several types of passion fruits (right to bottom right).
Eight different varieties grow on the island, and their flavors are as dynamic as their colors and shapes. The lemon passion fruit (as its name may indicate) is the brightest and zestiest of them all (and my favorite), but all types are delicious. Like the grapes and other fruits grown on this island, the fruit boasts bright, lip-smacking acidity, but the sweetness of the passion fruit keeps it balanced.

The market in downtown Funchal is in the heart of the shopping district, and it’s worth checking out for the fruit (and fish). Madeira is home to some incredible tropical fruits, but passion fruits are the most important to the island’s culture and cuisine. I must’ve tasted ten dishes that included passion fruit in some way, and each one was fantastic.

PONCHA! Credit: Madeira Wine Institute.

Every island has its own rum drink, right? Meet Madeira’s. It’s white rum, fresh squeezed lemons and a bit of honey, but the drink is anything but sweet.

Actually, it’s probably the most acidic, mouth-puckering beverage I’ve ever tasted. And I friggin’ loved it. I sipped a poncho with Joe Roberts (a fellow wine writer who joined me on the trip), at a small bar in the middle of a steep valley in the center of the island. We took turns taking sips and proclaiming the drink the tartest cocktail humans have ever created.

Like seemingly everything on the island, the lemons have a pervasive sense of sea salt — which I love. The drink seriously smells like lemons grown in middle of the ocean, which is pretty much what’s inside the glass. If you’re not as big an acid hound as I am, you may want to order the passion fruit version, which is still tart but shows lots of tropical juiciness. These drinks are served in bars all around the island, but to get the full experience, you should stop at one of the poncha shacks peppered around the island’s interior. Order a poncha. Stare up at the volcanic mountains. You will understand.


Madeira wine is some of the best in the world. (Here’s my primer on Madeira wine, and stay tuned for a series of upcoming posts from extensive wine tastings on the island). But if you’re visiting Madeira, I would recommend tasting as much Sercial wine as possible. 

Sercial is the driest style of Madeira and (perhaps with the exception of Verdelho) the most versatile when it comes to pairing with food.  I tasted several Sercials with several fish dishes, and each one was a delicious and intriguing pairing.

Sercial shows bright citrus flavors, sea breeze, sea salt, lemon and orange peels, and floral notes. Sound good? It is. Sercial also ages incredibly well, gaining all sorts of briny, nutty complexity as it evolves over decades. If you can get your palate on some vintages from the 40s-70s, please taste them. They are unparalleled in the world of wine. 


  1. Wow! Cool trip Isaac! I love Madiera (though for reasons completely inexplicable to me I don't drink it often) . That scabbard looks scary, but the poncha sounds great! Might have to add Madiera to my travel bucket list. Wonderful post...

    1. Thanks, Martin. It was an epic trip. It had been on my bucket list, and, I gotta say, it is deserving of a bucket list trip. Just incredible. Yes, scabbards are scary as fuck but tasty. And poncha - I wish I had one now!