Our Max recently visited Madeira with his girlfriend Emily – and had an amazing time! Here are Emily’s first impressions of Madeira and Madeiran food, as a vegan.
My first impression of Madeira is a steep sided lush garden paradise where everything seems to grow well. The air is fresh and the Atlantic blue and crystal clear.
Steep hillsides are adorned by traditional terraces which are still used for growing year round supplies of fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs and salads, irrigated by a network of irrigation channels, known as levadas, transporting water around the island making sure that any localised rainfall is collected and utilised.
Most growers are small holders, supplying for their households and local surrounds, with many plots being irrigated from these levadas. Farming is labour intensive as the terraces are narrow shelves, often in the most surprising and inaccessible looking places.
Contouring around the island the levadas are a true engineering feat; a small to mid-sized channel usually with a path alongside, sometimes cut into shelves within near vertical slopes or running through tunnels up to several kilometres long. Well known for providing interesting walking routes, a levada can take you to places you wouldn’t otherwise be able to access, and are certainly an attraction to walkers like myself. Thus the levadas provided the walking routes for our holiday (and the appetite) and the terraces provided the food.
On arrival in Madeira my aim was to opt for Portuguese or Madeiran cuisine above all. A local menu will typically have meat dishes on one list and fish dishes on the other, seemingly unlikely to be suitable for a vegan. What’s not seen is that everything is freshly cooked to order and therein lies the secret. Madeirans we met had a can do attitude and having explained that I was vegan, the response from staff was always a positive, yes we can make you something – what would you like?
Our first hotel was the wonderful Quintinha São João, and having already booked a table at their adjoining restaurant giving advance vegan notice, we were offered a selection of several specially selected dishes. I opted for a mouth-watering saffron risotto which was exquisite.
Breakfasts are typically a buffet style of huge variety with the option of ordering cooked items from your table. Fried mushrooms and toast is always a favourite of mine. There was a fine assortment suitable for a vegan including a selection of cereals, dried fruit and nuts, breads, fresh tropical fruit, and several varieties of freshly squeezed juices.
It would be easy to stay in the main town of Funchal eating at one of the many international restaurants, Indian or Italian for example, which are often easy options for a plant based eater, but where I ask, is the adventure in that?
Arriving at a local eatery, with no prior knowledge or internet research and seeing what happened was always rewarding. A glance at the menu might reveal they have spaghetti for example, so I would ask for spaghetti with vegetables and the chef’s choice of seasoning. I was treated to new and wonderful flavours. However, if you’d rather pre-plan a little more then I’d recommend searching the great website HappyCow.net.
Our walking guide Gonçalo had recommended a mountainside restaurant, which was obviously popular with locals. It was very busy, so I opted for the simplicity of Bolo do caco bread with fries. Bolo do caco is a flatbread made with sweet potato and typically toasted with garlic and butter – I had it toasted plain with olive oil for dipping and it’s lovely! The hand cut fries which came in a huge portion garnished with oregano, salt and garlic – a traditional Madeiran seasoning, were sooo good!
Our last night came just a little too quick, and was spent at the hotel Quinta da Serra, famed for it’s award winning eco-status and located in a little village on a quiet hillside. The restaurant is supplied with organic produce grown in the beautiful hotel grounds. Upon presentation of the menu, it was explained that many of the dishes that could be adapted for me. The clover risotto I chose was a tour de force, created lovingly and garnished with fresh flowers and dried vegetables all from the garden. I do love a risotto! A delicious desert followed of cherry sorbet with baked apple cooked in Madeira wine. Once again, I tasted new flavours and was very impressed.
I recommend Madeira to all! I loved the walking and I loved the food.
A note: When honey isn’t honey.
When a Madeiran talks about honey, it’s either bee honey or most often, Mel de cana, a type of light molasses from sugar cane. A quick question – Is it cane honey? Mel de cana? will get you all the information you need.
Have a great trip x
Emily in the kitchen garden at the Quinta da Serra
Archipelago Choice Madeira specialists
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