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Madeira, a Portuguese archipelago, is best known for two superstar exports: its namesake wine and soccer icon Cristiano Ronaldo. But its four islands, the largest of which is also called Madeira, are vacation-perfect in their own right, with a rugged yet lush landscape, vineyards, black-pebble beaches, staggered cliffs, and picturesque banana plantations.
But Madeira might very well be an emerging culinary destination, too. In 2017, William—the fine dining restaurant at Belmond Reid’s Palace, a cliffside luxury hotel in the Madeiran city of Funchal—became the first (and so far, only) restaurant with a Madeira-born chef, Luis Pestana, to be awarded a Michelin star
Pestana, who spent his childhood collecting chicken eggs and climbing trees to pick fruits, features many of the region's local foods in his upscale, contemporary European-influenced dishes (think: a lobster appetizer drizzled with Madeira passion fruit). “People never expect [to find] so many culinary traditions on an island with only 600 years [of history],” he explains. “The amazing diversity of fish, vegetables, and fruits on this very small island leaves everyone amazed and surprised.”
Even travelers from mainland Portugal are often shocked to see dishes they’re unfamiliar with. “Mainlanders eat white scabbard fish, we eat black scabbard fish; we fry the scabbard fish roe, they boil; they make slim steaks of tuna and we chop it in big pieces,” Pestana adds. “The differences are endless.”
As the global food industry continues to celebrate eating local, these differences have never been more important to Madeira’s rise as a culinary destination. “Nowadays [travelers] are more interested in getting to know the roots of the places they’re visiting,” says Pestana. “In Madeira, they have shown a big interest in our gastronomy.”
Below, chef Pestana shares some of the island’s most iconic foods, plus where you can try them now.
Bolo do Caco
If there’s one thing you can be guaranteed to find in every dining venue on the island, it’s bolo do caco, a flat round bread made of sweet potato and flour. It’s more like half bread, half cake. (The word bolo does translate to cake in Portuguese.) Served warm, slathered with butter and garlic, there might not be a more addictive dish in town. Says Pestana, “as a starter, bolo do caco is mandatory.”
Where to try: Anywhere
Considered one of Madeira’s most enduring delicacies, the espada is everywhere. Locals even eat sandwiches stuffed with fried fillets for breakfast. Pestana says he can’t go a week without eating it. “[On the island], it’s always possible to buy it fresh," he says. There are so many ways to prepare this fish, but one of the most traditional dishes is comprised of battered and fried espada layered with slices of bananas.
Where to try: O Celeiro, Funchal
Called limpets in English, these regional specialties are also quite popular in the Azores. Sourced from the Atlantic Ocean, lapas are essentially sea snails that look similar to clams. Most Madeirans, including Pestana, love their briny quality. Everyone agrees that the best way to enjoy them is the simplest: grilled with butter and garlic and then topped with a squeeze of lemon.
Where to try: Doca do Cavacas, Funchal
This is Madeira’s take on barbecue: chunks of meat skewered onto a stick made of bay leaves (in lieu of a metal skewer) and cooked over hot coals.
Where to try: Vila da Carne, Câmara de Lobos
Like the espada, tuna graces many menus on Madeira. And there are also countless ways to prepare it: grilled, in a stew, escabeche. Pestana recommends trying it salpresado style, where chunks of tuna are simply seasoned with salt, oregano, and bay leaves.
Where to try: Fajã dos Padres, Quinta Grande
Madeira wines might have already reached an international audience, but for locals, the drink of choice is poncha. This sugarcane aguardiente is flavored with honey and then brightened with citrus (usually a splash of lemon of juice) to cut through all that sweetness. Bars all over town might flavor the recipe by adding even more fruit like passionfruit or tangerine, but Pestana prefers the original. “It keeps you warm,” he says.
Where to try: A Venda Do André, Quinta Grande