The food of Madeira is more or less Mediterranean in that there are lots of fresh vegetables and fruit but some bits are quite stodgy. The local bread is rather different from anything I have come across before, but none the worse for that. The bread is made from a combination of grains and sweet potatoes. It is not uncommon to find cornbread that has been enhanced with a good dollop of mashed sweet potato. The dough is proved and then patted into discs about six inches in diameter and around an inch or so thick and then baked on hot stones, being turned after about twenty minutes for a further ten minutes the other side. This results in a dense dampish loaf with a distinctive aroma and flavour. It keeps pretty well in exactly the same condition for two or three days. The garlic bread is made by cutting across the middle of the loaf and spreading garlic butter on both sides, sandwiching together and baking again.
Because Madeira has no shores and therefore no beaches (there is one but I think it was man made) there is no endemic seafood or shellfish. Limpets are available but I never saw them for sale in the shops, or even the magnificent market - the Mercado des Lavators. A wonderful art deco building which has three floors of mainly food substances. The ground floor and first floor are mainly fruit and vegetables with all the butchers around the outside and accessed from their own doors on the street rather than from the market side. The middle of the ground floor is an empty square most of the week but on Friday the peasants come in from the countryside and sell their wares - wonderful herbs and oranges. I cannot forget the sight of the flower stalls, Birds of Paradise at E5 for a dozen seemed an amazing bargain - but they do seem to grow wild in the countryside.
The fish market in the basement sells all the local fish, particularly available is the Black Scabbard Fish - quite possibly the ugliest fish I have ever come across, even uglier than monkfish. I ate the Black Scabbard on three different occasions at restaurants and it was a nice fish - the taste and texture being a bit cod like but rather softer. One of the times I ordered it I could have been in Brighton because it was simply battered and served with chips. The second time it had been wrapped in an omelette, the soggy eggy cover did nothing for it. The third time it had been simply grilled on the bone but was served with an asonishing array of carbohydrates, rice, boiled potatoes and boiled yam - with a few Brussels sprouts and boiled carrots on the side. I thought that Ford Madox Ford said that the South of France was heaven indeed because the Brussels sprout would not grow so far south?
We did have a little mini market on site which was fine for most stuff but I can never resist wandering around the local food shops and seeing what is on offer. The supermarket in Funchal that I used (called Sa) had chicken carcasses for 50C each so I bought a couple whilst there to make fabulous chicken stock for soups. I could also buy plenty of fresh vegetables and was very taken with a type of runner bean unlike any I have previously encountered. Very flat and with a satin smooth pod, no strings to remove and cooked beautifully in about two minutes in boiling salted water. Very tender and delicious. I looked for packets of seed to bring home but there were none to be had.
Madeiran bananas are absolutely tiny - short and stumpy and when yellow they peel very easily. The scent from a peeling banana overwhelms the room and I cooked some with the local rum made from sugar cane which were declared fabulous. I bought some odd looking fruits from the market and cannot remember the name, they were about the size of a lychee and had a stone of about the same size inside. The fruits themselves were like little Scotch Bonnets and rather tart so I stewed them with a little sugar and poured hot over vanilla ice cream - delicious. The tangerines were picked from the tree the morning I bought them and they practically peeled themselves, leaving gorgeous juicy segments.
Dairy produce on Madeira is a bit mixed - all the pasteurised milk is imported and the milk ship comes in from Portugal on Tuesdays. UHT is available when the fresh milk runs out - as it inevitably does after about Saturday - so I took the precaution of buying a couple of litres on Fridays to keep us going. I did find some interesting cheese - a lovely goats cheese with a hard yellow rind and a soft crumbly interior and a rather nice soft cheese made from sheep's milk which had been rolled in pimento powder.
The cake shops were amazing - really beautiful looking cakes (heavy on the thick custard) with pretty iced tops which all meant something. I had the most gorgeous soft brioche type "horn" filled with the custard. Another one was a sort of chocolate roulade sprinkled with Madeira wine and spread with custard before rolling. There was a lovely sort of milles feuilles filled with custard - the pastry truly like leaves it was so thin - and then iced with a coffee flavour. And the custard tarts - oh, the custard tarts. I will dream about the custard tarts until I go to my grave. The pastry thin and crispy and the filling soft and warm with the top blackened because of the burnt sugar. Oh - the custard tarts.
I have to stop for a bit - the thought of those tarts makes me want some breakfast - but I shall return.