Lush greenery of banana groves, orange nasturtium flowers tumbling wildly down the banks of terraced plantations, mountain peaks cushioned from the sky by clouds coloured like dissolved rainbows, layer of colour upon layer of colour making it hard for your brain to work out the perspective. Lower down the slopes the greenery is broken by bright white houses with terracotta tiled roofs and dark green shutters framing the windows. The road on which I am travelling makes another step in the terracing which continues downwards to my left and the sea.
I am in Madeira. The island of 700 varieties of tropical fruits.
Maracuya – Passion fruit – I lost count of the number of varieties that we were offered samples of. There were ones with a hint of Pineapple, or lemon, or orange, or lime. Then there are Mango, Papaya, Avocado Pears, Kiwi Fruit, bitter Cherries, Custard Apple with creamy smooth flesh and shiny black seeds, the bright orange Caci or Persimmon which we know well in Spain but are just starting to be popular in northern Europe.
There are the fruit of the Monstera Deliciosa – Swiss Cheese plant, called in Madeira Filodendro. You buy them green and wait for them to finish ripening when the outer skin breaks open and reveals succulent little nuggets of fruit below which you pick off. The taste is slightly of pineapple. I did buy one to bring home, and was hoping that it would not erupt before I got here where I could photograph it for you in its stages of opening, but alas it had other ideas and made a sticky mess en route.
There are all the citrus fruits, from Clementines to Oranges, Lemons, Limes and Grapefruit.
Pineapples, Melons, Plums, Dates, Tree Tomatoes and the more usual Apples and Pears.
And above all Bananas. Mostly the dwarf Bananas with their small soft and sweet fruit, but also Silver Bananas and Apple Bananas. Where here in southern Spain, most small plots in the countryside have a plantation of citrus, in Madeira it is bananas. They are served fried with fillets of fish, which is not one of my favourite combinations. Much more successful are slices of fresh banana with goats cheese, try it you will be surprised at how well they complement one another.
The island has been a favourite settling down spot for the seafaring English, who have contributed their cake baking tastes. The famous Madiera cake, custard tarts – Tartas de Nata and Tortas De Arroz – light sponge cakes made even lighter by the addition of rice flour being the most popular.
Not surprisingly fish feature heavily in Madeiran cuisine. Espetada is a fish only found in these waters and those around Japan. It is a black skinned fish and not pretty, but very tasty especially served with a passion fruit sauce. The Tuna are big and meaty. Limpets prised from the rocky shoreline are a local delicacy. There are prawns and lobster, sardines and jacks, as well as the big game fish of Merlin and Swordfish. Being part of Portugal there is also dried Cod, Bacalao, but I am not sure if this is locally caught or shipped in.
Where did we eat that we would recommend?
The café on the roof of Los Lavradores Market in Funchal where we ate this fabulous salad with its topping of mango, papaya, dates, fresh goats cheese, walnuts and with passion fruit to pour over as a dressing. Their house toasted sandwich was a great combination of melted cheese, sweet onions, roasted red pepper paste and fresh oregano. Or you can just enjoy a quiet drink in the sunshine surrounded by potted plants away from the bustle of the market below.
Tasca Literaria Dona Joana Rabo-De-Peixe in the old town of Funchal. The ambiance is comfy old library with sofas for lounging and tables to eat. The chef here knows how to season food perfectly. Freshly made salt cod fritters served with a black-eyed bean salad which was dressed with finely chopped sweet onion, fresh parsley, lemon juice and olive oil. Papas con Mojo Picon, wrinkly potatoes still in their skins and firey red pepper sauce. Guacamole made in the usual way with a touch of garlic, lime and chilli, but with the unusual addition of fresh ginger. It worked really well and my guacamole will be spiced with ginger from now on.
Olives. Tucked into one of the pedestrian streets near the cathedral of Funchal this intimate restaurant has impeccable charming service and interesting food beautifully executed. The spinach and potato veloute was wonderfully light and creamy. Sardines with spicy tomato salad. Duck with mango sauce and sweet potatoes.
Pomodoro Rosso. Super stylish modern Milano décor. Good risottos as an Italian restaurant should have. The veal saltimbocca was excellent as was the fillet steak. Let down by frozen vegetables with the main course and charging for the amuse bouche.