My Round: Madeira mixes things with the best

Madeira is famous for fortified wine, but what the locals can really teach us is how to make a lethal cocktail

Octavio Sousa is pounding lemon peel and sugar with his
caralinho. The English word for this wooden implement, a basic tool of bartending, is muddler. In Portuguese, Sousa tells us, the official name is
mexelote. But
caralinho, the unofficial name, translates literally as "little cock" – a much more picturesque rendering in anyone's book. Which makes sense, because the picturesque features large in the setting for Sousa's Bar do Mar in Camara de Lobos, on the island of Madeira. Sousa is using the little cock to fashion poncha, a local drink with synapse-sapping potential.

Octavio Sousa is pounding lemon peel and sugar with his caralinho. The English word for this wooden implement, a basic tool of bartending, is muddler. In Portuguese, Sousa tells us, the official name is mexelote. But caralinho, the unofficial name, translates literally as "little cock" – a much more picturesque rendering in anyone's book. Which makes sense, because the picturesque features large in the setting for Sousa's Bar do Mar in Camara de Lobos, on the island of Madeira. Sousa is using the little cock to fashion poncha, a local drink with synapse-sapping potential.

How is it that once again I go to a place to learn about wine and end up in a cocktail bar? In Camara do Lobos, it's as easy as falling off a barstool. If you held your breath and walked out of the Bar do Mar, you would pass three other bars before you needed to draw breath. Madeira has a long and venerable tradition of cocktail-making, based partly in the island's colonial past and partly in local drinking habits. The colonial side is best exemplified at Reid's Palace Hotel, the most famous and exclusive on the island, where they serve Martinis, Manhattans and all the other classics. The demotic side is exemplified by the cheap, explosively fiery rum (here called aguardiente) which forms the alcoholic basis of poncha.

A traditional poncha, which is what Sousa is making for us, contains just lemon, sugar, aguardiente and some honey to soften the impact of the spirit. It takes around five minutes to make, unless you dispense with the little cock and use a food processor. At 2.50 (around £1.75) it is a cut-price cutie, Madeira's indigenous addition to the noble family of sours: cocktails based on the principle of high acidity balanced by sweetness. Sousa claims that poncha is the origin of the much more famous caipirinha. Since the Portuguese were the people who colonised Brazil, his claim makes perfect sense.

The Bar do Mar is not simply a cocktail bar, it's a piece of Madeiran history. It began life around 1880 as the "Maritima" general store, founded by Sousa's great-great-grandfather, and remnants of its past are displayed behind the plain wooden bar: an ancient coffee grinder, scales, battered storage tin with the words "Cacau Raja" in faded type. Sousa took the place over last year and renamed it. He has live music at weekends, sometimes performed by himself – when not running the bar, he's in the music business in London as well as Madeira. And while Camara de Lobos is still a fishing town, the Bar do Mar is cosmopolitan. Apart from those ponchas, the cocktail list would not look out of place in any European capital.

Cocktails are a part of the island's drinking culture. John Cossart, of the great Madeira house Henriques & Henriques, says that his father developed the company's bone-dry Monte Seco Madeira in 1938 in response to the threat of war. "Martini drinkers were worried that they would lose their supply of Noilly Prat", and Monte Seco was created as a home-grown alternative. Monte Seco tastes pretty good in Martinis, though I don't think it will ever replace vermouth. At Reid's hotel, the ultra-refined bar makes them the old-fashioned way – they're as good as any I've drunk in New York or London. Who'd have thought that an island off the coast of Portugal is a cocktail-hound's paradise?

But if I could only drink cocktails at one of Madeira's hotspots, I'd choose the Bar do Mar. I'd stick with the traditional poncha, rather than the passion-fruit version (delicious though it is) or any of their other variations. One of my drinking companions, Christine Austin of the Yorkshire Evening Post, described traditional poncha as an "alcoholic Strepsil". I couldn't put it better. I'd go back for another one any time I'm asked. *

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Guru Careers: MI Developer

    £35 - 45k: Guru Careers: An MI Developer is needed to join the leading provide...

    Recruitment Genius: Fitness Manager

    £20000 - £22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leisure organisation manag...

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Manager

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Delivering an inspiring, engagi...

    Recruitment Genius: Learning Team Administrator

    £17500 - £20500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for a great te...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions