Funchal’s reputation as a foodie hotspot is growing, but the options can be overwhelming. Gary Rose gets some insider tips on the city’s top Food and Wine tour.
“There’s no such thing as Madeira cake,” is the first nugget to surprise me on my tour of the Madeiran capital Funchal’s food and wine spots. But that’s what the island’s most famous for, surely? Madeira cake, Madeira wine and... Cristiano Ronaldo: a player so good on the wing they named the national airport after him.
But the absence of a national cake was not the only fact I’d learn about as I pounded Funchal’s streets in a group of a dozen tourists, headed by our tour guide Sofia. Funchal’s name, Sofia tells me, has culinary roots: it means “the place where fennel grows”.
“Where’s all the fennel in the food then?” pipes up one tourist. “We mostly use it in tea,” is the response.
Funchal has an inexhaustible supply of restaurants, 11 of which appear in the Michelin Guide, including two starred ones (William and the two-starredIl Gallo d'Oro). But I'm not here for such luxury. I want to find the off-the-beaten-track places, and that's precisely what this Wine and Food tour offers.
We start at Made in Madeira, a cute boutique that's a magpie's nest of Madeiran curios. Once upon a time the building was home to a brothel, but now it sells clothes, antiques, coffee, cakes and wine on the ground floor. Downstairs, a function room hosts wine tastings and can also be hired for parties.
Here, we convene for some Verdehlo table wine — it is 10.45am, after all. Verdehlo is a new one on me and it’s one of the few non-fortified white varietals Madeira produces. It has a refreshing stone-fruit character backed with a flinty minerality. On the side, we get crostini topped with two of the island's signature foods: black scabbard fillet and passion fruit.
Next, we're off to Madeira wine specialists Pereira De Oliveira. When I heard we were heading to a winery, I assumed it would be Blandy’s, Madeira's most famous wine producer. But this being an “off-the-beaten-track” tour, we bypass Blandy's in favour of D’Oliveira’s, where the wines date back to the mid-19th century. Against a backdrop of American oak barrels that smell like raisins, we taste three Madeira wines of increasing sweetness, alongside a chunk of "bolo de mel", which translates as honey cake (or “sugar cane syrup cake” as it says on the box).
If anything deserves be called "Madeira cake", it’s bolo de mel. It’s nothing like the soft, yellow stuff you get in British supermarkets (called Madeira cake because it was often eaten alongside Madeira wine in 19th century England). Rather, bolo de mel is crumbly, dark, and stuffed with nuts and spices, especially ginger. Tastewise, it's not unlike Jamaican gingerbread.
“D'Oliveira's sells the best honey cake in Funchal,” says Sofia. “Don't buy it from the supermarket." I’ve already done so by this point, though. And I can testify that she's right.
In case we’re not buzzing enough from one white wine, two crostini, three Madeira wines and some bolo de mel, we slip down an inconspicuous side street for a chocolate kick at Uau Cacau. Here, Sofia challenges us to guess the flavours of two rich and fruity samples. But we have no chance, because the answers are “tree tomato” and “pitanga” (aka “Surinam cherry”). This is serious chocolate, and you couldn't get more local. A must-stop for cocoa heads.
Far easier to find is Fabrica De Santo Antonio. This biscuit factory has been in business since 1893, and its heritage is reflected in its stylish traditional packaging, which make its products perfect take-home gifts. Sofia tells us how she used to spend her change on broken biscuits here as a child, and I imagine a Dickensian scene of kids in flat caps peering over the counter shouting “oi mister”.
We try savoury beer biscuits (surely the ultimate bar snack), and a dangerously moreish square cookie topped with quince marmalade. To drink: passion fruit juice, of course.
It’s lunchtime, so we park ourselves at Venda Da Donna Maria on the old town's main thoroughfare, Rua De Santa Maria — a quaint, cobbled, narrow street flanked with artistically daubed doors. Unfortunately, it’s also where you'll experience a run-the-gauntlet battle with restaurant touts. “Evening sir. Are you a Geordie,” was the best/worst opening line I received.
Touristy location aside, lunch at Donna Maria hits the spot. Dried skipjack tuna in vinaigrette is toughly textured like tree bark and stings the tongue with a lemon tang. Pork marinated in garlic and wine is irresistibly spicy. On the side, sits the ubiquitous bolo de caco, a cake-shaped bread smeared in garlic butter.
Some people will urge you to avoid eating in the old town, but there are plenty of good restaurants here. I’d also recommendTaberna Madeira and O Tasco for quality local specialities, among which you must try the limpets in garlic butter and lemon juice. Both places are popular, so book in advance.
You won’t be in Funchal long before you encounter poncha, a lethal short 'n' sour cocktail of rum, honey and lemon juice. I’ll admit I racked up a few during my week here (of varying quality) but A Mercadora’s were both the best and the cheapest.
If you’re an adventurous seeker of “real” experiences on holiday you’ll love this rough-and-ready bar in a back room behind what looks, at first glance, like a pet food shop. Here, locals line up to slam back ponchas at the makeshift bar.
There are no seats and the floor is carpeted with monkey nut shells, which it’s customary to chuck over your shoulder for the barkeep to sweep up later. That's what they told me, anyway.
“In Madeira, if you have a cold, a fever, a broken heart... poncha is the medicine,” says Sofia. Most of the group enjoy it so much we order seconds, and soon everyone is talking in sign language with the locals, who look like they’ve been there all day. An American lady, who had been quiet until now, is telling everyone about her shoes and her son’s love life. Time to stagger on to our final stop.
“Don’t buy anything at the Mercado Dos Lavradores. They rip tourists off,” was the advice given by the guy sitting next to me on the plane. And I realised he was right when I was charged just under 10 Euros for half a dozen tiny bananas, two tomatoes and a mango. Sofia also warns us about this: “The locals buy fish here, but not fruit. For fruit you will be charged tourist prices.”
While the market is mostly underwhelming, it’s worth checking out the scabbard fish on the lower ground floor (a fish so ugly it's condemned to live at depths of perpetual darkness) before scaling the stairs for cake and fennel tea at Macaronesia. A beautiful combination, it's an aptly circular way to round off a tour of this beautiful town. Fennel tea in the place where fennel grows.
Gary Rose writes about wine, food and travel forwww.wineninjas.org
His food and wine tour included a total of nine stops, 11 food tastings and six drinks. It was hosted by www.winetoursmadeira.com
For more information on Madeira visit www.madeiraallyear.com