Madeira on the menu

Whether you hunger for rustic dishes or prefer high-end gastronomy, this Portuguese island offers a taste of both

Staring up from its slab in the art deco Mercado dos Lavradores, Funchal's main produce market, was one of the ugliest edible fish I have ever seen. With massive eye sockets, jagged teeth and a long, slimy, dustbin-greybody, the espada has all the charm of a dinosaur. But Benoît Sinthon, Madeira's top chef, was in rhapsodies about this unlikely creature. It's almost unique to Madeira, whose steep volcanic steep slopes are matched by astoundingly deep waters.

"By day, they live more than a kilometre below the surface," said Sinthon, "but at night, they rise more than 400 metres to feed and that's when the fishermen catch them. You can see the lights of their boats from the shore."

"So is this the fish that's often served with banana?" asked chef Christian Petz of the Badeschiff in Vienna. "It is," said Hans Neuner, an Austrian-born chef who cooks up miracles at Ocean on the Algarve. "And the flavour?" asked Nigel Haworth of Northcote Manor near Blackburn.

"Delicate, with a beautiful, soft texture," said Sinthon, leading us upstairs to the fruit market. Madeira is known for its hybrid tropical fruit, which the stallholders set out in kaleidoscope-like displays. Among the oddities are passionfruit which variously look like bananas, smell like pineapples, taste like sweet limes and melt in your mouth like mangoes.

My rather special meet-the-chefs market tour formed part of the 2012 Rota das Estrelas, a Portugal-wide food festival. In the past, Portugal was better known for rustic fish and bean stews than for fine dining; even now, it has only 12 Michelin-starred restaurants to its name (Spain has more than 130). But change is in the air.

I was staying at Madeira's gastronomic epicentre, The Cliff Bay Hotel. Its restaurant, Sinthon's Il Gallo d'Oro, is the holder of one of those precious stars. The restaurant's main role in the festival was to stage a series of four gala dinners prepared collaboratively by Sinthon and 11 guest chefs from all over Europe, a team which could boast 14 stars between them.

"It's so refreshing to spend time with these guys," said Sinthon. "Something always comes out of it – whether it's a new way of looking at a familiar ingredient, or a different way of presenting it." The charm clearly works both ways: all the chefs who fly out to Madeira as Sinthon's guests do so for expenses only. Sinthon's reputation alone is enough to draw pan-European crowds; his menus change with the seasons, making Il Gallo d'Oro an indulgent choice at any time of year.

Those who are in the mood for something more traditional saunter along the coast to Reid's Palace, the elegant old hotel which once hosted George Bernard Shaw and Sir Winston Churchill (though not at the same time). A colonial-style atmosphere lingers in its panelled rooms, a legacy of the days when British travellers making the long voyage by ocean liner from Cape Town to Southampton would break their journey here. Afternoon tea on the terrace is a delight, with sandwiches, macaroons and tiny portions of bolo de mel, the Madeirans' favourite cake. Beyond the balustrade are glorious sea views that augment every mouthful.

Having sampled a little of Madeira's sophisticated side, I was keen to delve into its peasant heritage. Some feel that a wave of stylised, mainland-influenced cuisine could erode the locals' appetite for fearsome-looking fish, bananas and sweet, dark wine. To find out what I'd been missing, I travelled west to Câmara de Lobos harbour to feast on fish that arrived whole and practically gasping on the plate, and up into the hills behind, where waiters loaded our table with espetadas, skewered kebabs seasoned with garlic and wild laurel from the mountains. Superbly fresh, everything was simple, fragrant, delicious.

Meanwhile, in Funchal's old town, the small, traditional restaurants were buzzing. The old town took a beating in 2010 when landslides and floods tore through several parts of the city centre. But now, thanks to an imaginative regeneration programme, the restaurants have offbeat galleries and street-long art installations for neighbours, and the bars have a younger, hipper clientele. It's become cool for Madeiran twentysomethings to come here at weekends and sip poncha, the sugar-cane hooch their grandmothers used to make, mixed with vodka, passionfruit and ice.

Walking through this low-key but lively quarter close to midnight on a Friday, I heard nothing but local voices. Clearly the pan-European crowd have yet to catch on. But it's only a matter of time.


Travel essentials

Getting there

easyJet (0905 821 0905; flies to Madeira from Bristol and Gatwick. TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932; flies from Gatwick; Jet2 (0871 226 1737; flies from Leeds-Bradford and Manchester.

Staying there

The Cliff Bay (00 351 291 707700; has doubles from €180 including breakfast, for reservations in June.

More information

The Roto das Estrelas festival (rotadases continues at various Portuguese destinations until mid-November

Madeira Tourism (

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
New Articles
i100... with this review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
footballTim Sherwood: This might be th match to wake up Manchester City
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
New Articles
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Blahnik says: 'I think I understand the English more than they do themselves'
Arts and Entertainment
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey
TVInside Downton Abbey series 5
Life and Style
The term 'normcore' was given the oxygen of publicity by New York magazine during the autumn/winter shows in Paris in February
fashionWhen is a trend a non-trend? When it's Normcore, since you ask
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam