Por­tuguese Paradise

In the land of the world’s finest for­ti­fied wine, we find an even richer gas­tro­nomic bounty to match

T.Dining by Hong Kong Tatler - - The Dish -

The jour­ney to lunch could hardly be more dra­matic. As you look 300 me­tres down a sheer cliff face, the might of the At­lantic crash­ing on the rocky coast­line be­low, you spot ter­ra­cot­ta­roofed build­ings scat­tered among im­pos­si­bly green vine­yards. The cliffs con­tinue in a dra­matic sweep up the coast, un­changed for mil­len­nia since this mag­nif­i­cent is­land was born from a vast un­der­sea vol­canic erup­tion.

We are some­where called both the “is­land of eter­nal spring” and the “gar­den is­land”—Ilha Jardim in Por­tuguese, oth­er­wise known as Madeira. Around a 90-minute flight south­west from Lis­bon, or three-and-a-half hours to Lon­don, Paris and Am­s­ter­dam, this ar­chi­pel­ago stuns the first-time vis­i­tor with truly awe-in­spir­ing land­scapes, leg­endary wine and a gen­uine, homely food cul­ture that makes the most of the is­land’s rich vol­canic soil.

But first, that lunch. The cliffs of Fajã dos Padres are a 20-minute drive from the cap­i­tal, Fun­chal, but a world away from what passes for Madeira’s only city. The de­scent to the vine­yards and beach­side restau­rant be­low used to in­volve a ter­ri­fy­ing-look­ing rudi­men­tary lift, jok­ingly called “the fridge” by lo­cals. Mer­ci­fully, to­day there is a Ger­man cable car that whisks you silently up and down in just three min­utes.

On ar­rival, you’re greeted with 13 hectares of gar­dens that’ll make chefs and home cooks alike weep with envy. Given the sub­trop­i­cal lo­ca­tion, there are mango and fig trees with so much fruit that their branches al­most touch the floor, a rain­bow of cit­rus fruits, pa­paya, pas­sion­fruit, huge black aubergines and herbs ab­so­lutely ev­ery­where. Bird-of-paradise plants fight for space with Suri­nam cherry trees and wild­flow­ers at ev­ery turn, pol­li­nated by count­less bees and but­ter­flies, while mul­ti­coloured lizards dart in and out. Most of all, it’s the vines of Mal­va­sia (or Malm­sey) grapes, which were first planted by Je­suits in the 16th cen­tury, uniquely sur­viv­ing the rav­ages of phyl­lox­era and still pro­duc­ing to this day in the form of some of the is­land’s very best Madeira wine.

Most un­usu­ally, the vines are planted all the way up to the shore­line, mean­ing that they get wa­tered partly by the spray of waves crash­ing in. A talk with the de­light­ful wine­maker Mario leads to a glass of the 2001 that he pours by reach­ing into the bar­rel with an an­cient wooden stick with a scoop on the end, just enough to whet the ap­petite for lunch in a restau­rant five min­utes’ walk along the coastal path.

To start, in­cred­i­ble limpets known as la­pas, served in a deca­dent and de­li­cious lemon but­ter sauce; there’s gar­lic bread called bolo de caco to mop it up. It’s made partly with sweet pota­toes and thus dense like soda bread—and all the bet­ter for it. The la­pas only thrive in the clean­est wa­ters, hence the wild and rich sur­rounds of the At­lantic Ocean are the per­fect source, along with as­ton­ish­ingly good seafood of ev­ery de­scrip­tion.

That in­cludes enor­mous tuna that’s big and ruby-red enough to make Tsuk­iji ven­dors jeal­ous. The prepa­ra­tion is sim­plic­ity it­self: a thick steak grilled with olive oil, gar­lic and a zingy salsa verde. It’s served atop im­pec­ca­ble vegeta­bles in­clud­ing cherry toma­toes, car­rots, red pep­pers and spinach that had sur­rounded us just a few min­utes

prior on our walk to the restau­rant. To crown the rus­tic but beau­ti­ful plat­ing is an el­e­gant yel­low flower, while the shore be­hind, with its gar­dens and cliffs, makes for the per­fect back­drop.

Peaks and Perks

The ex­pe­ri­ence at Fajã dos Padres comes through Bel­mond Reid’s Palace in Fun­chal, a his­toric and el­e­gant lux­ury ho­tel that has been wel­com­ing guests since 1891, in­clud­ing the likes of Win­ston Churchill, Ge­orge Bernard Shaw and Gre­gory Peck. The restau­rant also cu­rates the op­por­tu­nity to sam­ple “sun­rise above the clouds”, which in­volves climb­ing 1,818 me­tres to the sum­mit of the Pico do Arieiro, Madeira’s third-high­est peak.

For­tu­nately, the climb hap­pens in a 4x4 Jeep, wind­ing up and through pre-sun­rise mist un­til you find your­self lit­er­ally above the clouds. The ex­pe­ri­ence is noth­ing short of ex­tra­or­di­nary—at least on a clear and sunny day, as we en­joyed—partly be­cause the moun­tains are clad in strik­ing con­i­cal pur­ple flow­ers called echium can­di­cans, bet­ter known as “pride of Madeira”. More than that, though, it’s the va­ri­ety of jagged moun­tain land­scapes ev­ery­where you look as the sun rises and a sea of clouds be­neath slowly re­veals them.

To cap it all, a true Por­tuguese break­fast of cham­pi­ons awaits, served down the moun­tain in a clear­ing sur­rounded by pine trees. The ta­ble is al­ready groan­ing with pas­tries and breads, cof­fee, juices, fruit, yo­ghurts, lo­cal ham, chouriço sausage and cheeses when the but­ler (who has driven up sep­a­rately to pre­pare your feast) pro­ceeds to pop open the cham­pagne—at a quar­ter to eight in the morn­ing.

Bel­mond Reid’s Palace is un­ques­tion­ably Madeira’s most lux­u­ri­ous prop­erty, but the is­land fea­tures count­less other ac­com­mo­da­tion and din­ing op­tions at a wide range of price points. One dish fre­quently seen on menus is mariscada: seafood rice that’s heav­ing with fresh fish, lob­ster, clams, shrimp and mus­sels in a sauce usu­ally heavy with smoky Por­tuguese pa­prika. The qual­ity of the lo­cal seafood meant that ev­ery ver­sion I tried was sen­sa­tional—and a real bar­gain

by Hong Kong stan­dards, rarely run­ning more than €15

(or HK$135).

A stand­out ver­sion came at the in­trigu­ingly named

Golden Gate Grand Café in the heart of Fun­chal’s charm­ing old town. That’s partly be­cause it’s been in busi­ness, in one form or an­other, since 1841. Its first-floor bal­cony is es­pe­cially charm­ing, over­look­ing the cob­bled streets be­low. Given the long love af­fair be­tween Great Bri­tain and Madeira (in the 18th cen­tury, Madeira was the most pres­ti­gious wine avail­able in the English-speak­ing world), there’s also a pro­cliv­ity for British-style af­ter­noon tea, com­plete with deca­dent cakes.

An­other tra­di­tional spe­cial­ity is es­petada—namely, beef skew­ered on a stick of lau­rel be­fore be­ing sea­soned with salt, pep­per, gar­lic and bay leaves. It’s roasted on a bra­zier over char­coal or wood chips, and then served on its sus­tain­able skewer, mak­ing it sen­sa­tional eat­ing for com­mit­ted car­ni­vores. To ac­com­pany are deca­dent fried pota­toes, rice, and the afore­men­tioned bolo de caco gar­lic bread or milho frito (fried po­lenta squares) that act as the per­fect sponge for the meat’s juices. A fine ren­di­tion can be had on the ter­race at the At­lantic Restau­rant, aptly over­look­ing the ocean.

Soups are an­other dish served al­most with­out fail on set menus. Caldo verde is much bet­ter than its slightly unin­spir­ing “green soup” trans­la­tion sug­gests. It’s fre­quently made with kale, spinach and cavolo nero cab­bage, but veg­e­tar­i­ans need to be­ware, as it in­vari­ably also in­cludes nuggets of pork. An­other bowl to warm the soul is acorda, rich with gar­lic, cilantro and chunks of bread that give it heft. Even in the con­sid­er­able heat of sum­mer—Madeira is only 300 miles from the coast of Mo­rocco—it’s a wel­come kalei­do­scope of big flavours.

Ul­ti­mately, Madeira is a very spe­cial is­land in a cor­ner of Europe still rarely vis­ited by trav­ellers from Asia.

It’s per­haps most well known as the child­hood home of superstar foot­baller Cris­tiano Ron­aldo but in­creas­ingly, its jaw-drop­ping land­scapes, laid-back vibe and de­li­cious lo­cal pro­duce look set to change that.

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