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.
easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) flies to Madeira from Bristol and Gatwick. TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932; flytap.com) flies from Gatwick; Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) flies from Leeds-Bradford and Manchester.
The Cliff Bay (00 351 291 707700; portobay.com) has doubles from €180 including breakfast, for reservations in June.
The Roto das Estrelas festival (rotadases trelas.com) continues at various Portuguese destinations until mid-November
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