Beyond Bolo do Caco: 5 Iconic Dishes and Drinks You Must Try in Madeira
Beyond Bolo do Caco: 5 Iconic Dishes and Drinks You Must Try in Madeira - The King of Cheese - São Jorge Cheese
No trip to Madeira would be complete without sampling its most famous cheese - São Jorge. This semi-hard cow's milk cheese originates from the island of São Jorge in the Azores archipelago, located around 600 miles east of Madeira. It's one of Portugal's most iconic cheeses and a delicacy that foodies flock to Madeira to experience.
São Jorge cheese is lovingly produced by hand using raw milk from indigenous cows that graze freely on the nutrient-rich pastures of the volcanic island. It gets its distinctive tangy, salty flavor from the sea fennel the cows munch on daily. The milk is gently curdled before being molded into cylinder wheels and aged to perfection for a minimum of 60 days.
This results in a firm yet creamy cheese with subtle hints of the ocean and pasture. When you bite into a slice, it starts off mild then gives way to a complex medley of flavors. Expect pleasingly crumbly yet smooth texture and appealing yellow color. The longer São Jorge cheese ages, the more concentrated and complex it becomes. Connoisseurs seek out wheels aged 1-3 years for intense flavor.
There are a few ways to enjoy this Portuguese delicacy on Madeira. Look for it on cheese boards at restaurants paired with local honey, nuts and fruit. Or order a toastie stuffed with melted São Jorge for a gooey treat. Sample it thinly sliced with a glass of the island's famous fortified wine. You can also pick up a wedge at gourmet shops to enjoy a cheese picnic with ocean views.
For the best introduction to this iconic cheese, time your visit to coincide with the Festival do Queijo São Jorge in August. During this annual 10-day fair, producers from across the Azores gather in Madeira to share their São Jorge wheels. You can taste a variety from young and creamy to extra sharp and crumbly. Chat with the cheesemakers and learn what makes each batch unique.
What else is in this post?
- Beyond Bolo do Caco: 5 Iconic Dishes and Drinks You Must Try in Madeira - The King of Cheese - São Jorge Cheese
- Beyond Bolo do Caco: 5 Iconic Dishes and Drinks You Must Try in Madeira - A Sweet Treat - Madeira Wine
- Beyond Bolo do Caco: 5 Iconic Dishes and Drinks You Must Try in Madeira - Fresh from the Sea - Espada Preta
- Beyond Bolo do Caco: 5 Iconic Dishes and Drinks You Must Try in Madeira - Farm to Table - Milho Frito
- Beyond Bolo do Caco: 5 Iconic Dishes and Drinks You Must Try in Madeira - Meaty Tradition - Carne de Vinha d'Alhos
- Beyond Bolo do Caco: 5 Iconic Dishes and Drinks You Must Try in Madeira - Cakes and More - Bolo de Mel
Beyond Bolo do Caco: 5 Iconic Dishes and Drinks You Must Try in Madeira - A Sweet Treat - Madeira Wine
No trip to the sun-soaked island of Madeira would be complete without a glass of the fortified wine that shares its name. Madeira wine has a rich history dating back to the 15th century. When the Portuguese first colonized the volcanic island, they planted vineyards on terraced slopes overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. There, vintners used an oxidized winemaking process that resulted in a distinctive sweet wine able to withstand long journeys by sea.
Centuries later, true Madeira wine is still aged using the estufagem method. This involves heating the wine in the tropical climate over months or years, concentrating the flavors and adding complexity. The end result is a lusciously sweet yet bright wine ranging from dry Sercial to rich Malmsey styles. Sipping Madeira wine is a rite of passage for visitors.
For the classic experience, head to one of the old wine lodges in Funchal, the island's capital city. Historic companies like D'Oliveiras have cellars dating back over a century. Pass through dark barrel rooms lined with aging Madeira before settling in the tasting lounge. Here, knowledgeable hosts guide you through flights of various vintages and styles. Take your time appreciating the nuanced flavors - raisin, burnt sugar, honey, nuts and caramel. Pair sweeter styles with local cookies for a treat.
Beyond Bolo do Caco: 5 Iconic Dishes and Drinks You Must Try in Madeira - Fresh from the Sea - Espada Preta
No island cuisine is complete without savoring the bounty from the surrounding seas. In Madeira, that means seeking out Espada Preta, also known as black scabbardfish. This deep-sea dweller makes for a distinctly local catch that foodies flock to the island to experience.
Espada Preta thrive at depths between 30 to 600 meters in the clear Atlantic waters off Madeira's coast. Fishermen traditionally Caught them using pole lines, waiting patiently for a bite before reeling up their slippery prize. Their long, slim bodies put up a good fight, making for an exciting haul.
Once landed, Espada Preta reveals its defining feature - jet black skin that inspired its name. This dark exterior camouflages snowy white flesh with large, tasty flakes underneath. It's this high-quality meat that makes Espada Preta so coveted at Madeiran restaurants and fish markets.
The traditional way to prepare this local specialty is grilled over charcoal. The smoky sear adds another layer of flavor to the uniquely buttery, moist meat inside. Espada Preta also shines when fried, roasted whole, or added to stews. No matter how it's cooked, a sprinkle of sea salt and squeeze of lemon brings out the subtle sweetness.
For many visitors, tasting Espada Preta for the first time is a revelation. James from London said the simply grilled fish stole the show at his hotel's dining room in Funchal. "The meat was so supple, it nearly melted in my mouth. I've never tasted fish so fresh and delicious," he raved.
Meghan from Ireland sampled Espada Preta at a seaside restaurant in Câmara de Lobos, where the specialty is served whole. "Seeing the entire fish arrive at the table was intimidating at first. But once I dug into that expertly roasted flesh, I was hooked. Now I seek it out daily!" she shared.
Beyond Bolo do Caco: 5 Iconic Dishes and Drinks You Must Try in Madeira - Farm to Table - Milho Frito
When it comes to iconic Madeiran cuisine, milho frito is the ultimate farm-to-table staple. This crispy fried cornmeal dish has peasant roots but has become a celebrated specialty across the island. Made with just a few humble ingredients, milho frito captures the essence of traditional Madeiran cooking.
To make milho frito, dried corn kernels are finely ground into a coarse flour known as milho. Cooks combine the cornmeal with broth, eggs, salt and parsley to form little patties. These are then shallow fried in olive oil until golden brown and crispy on the outside while fluffy within. The end result is a moreish treat equally at home on the breakfast table or served as a starchy side.
Milho frito is classic comfort food, but what makes it special is celebrating corn grown on Madeira’s terraced farmland. The island’s rich volcanic soil and mild climate are ideal for cultivating corn. Generations of farmers have worked the same verdant plots, tending each stalk by hand. The corn is left to dry fully on the cob before removed to be turned into milho flour. Locals take pride in sourcing their cornmeal from neighbors who have grown and ground it themselves.
“I love watching Antonío harvest the corn each fall just like his father and grandfather before him. You can taste the care that goes into cultivating those vivid golden fields in the milho frito Antonío’s wife Celia prepares,” shares João from Funchal. He eagerly awaits this seasonal treat each year.
Milho frito is a fixture at village festivals and feasts across Madeira. The crunchy patties are perfect finger food to enjoy outdoors paired with small glasses of poncha, the local rum infusion. Milho frito also appears on restaurant menus as the ideal accompaniment to Espada Preta. The crispy, fluffy corn cakes beautifully offset the richness of the griddled fish.
Food writer James still recalls his first bite of milho frito at a farmhouse restaurant outside Santana. “I watched the cook form and fry the patties in a cast iron skillet using cornmeal ground just steps away. That milho frito emerged sunny and fragrant, each bite bursting with the essence of corn,” he says. The dish stuck with him as capturing Madeira's unique teroir.
Beyond Bolo do Caco: 5 Iconic Dishes and Drinks You Must Try in Madeira - Meaty Tradition - Carne de Vinha d'Alhos
No meat dish represents Madeira quite like carne de vinho e alhos. This beef marinated in red wine and garlic has roots tracing back to the island's earliest settlers. Over generations it evolved into a beloved specialty celebrated at festivals and family feasts. For visitors, biting into carne de vinho e alhos offers a taste of quintessential Madeiran cuisine.
To make this iconic marinade, local chefs start by slowly simmering red wine from the island's vineyards with olive oil, garlic, bay leaves, pepper and salt. This infuses the wine with layers of flavor. Ribeye or sirloin tips are added to the marinade and left to soak overnight. The beef absorbs the garlicky wine notes, becoming wonderfully tender.
When it's time to cook, the beef is removed from the marinade and seared quickly over high heat. This seals in the juices while adding a smoky char. The meat is then braised for hours until fork tender. Madeirans often prepare carne de vinho e alhos in a traditional clay pot called a pee de cabrito. This evenly distributes the heat, intensifying the flavors.
Miguel, who owns a restaurant in Funchal, has vivid childhood memories of his grandmother slow-cooking carne de vinho e alhos all Sunday. "The aromas of wine, garlic and meat filled the house as generations gathered around the table," he recalls. Years later, Miguel put his own spin on the family recipe while staying true to tradition.
His American friend Alicia first sampled Miguel's specialty after hiking a levada trail. "The beef melted in my mouth like butter, with this incredible depth of flavor from the wine," she says. Now whenever Alicia visits Madeira, she makes a beeline for Miguel's restaurant to enjoy carne de vinho e alhos.
Maria, who grew up farming in the mountains above Funchal, looks forward to the annual parish festival where carne de vinho e alhos is always the star attraction. "Everyone on the island has their own unique way of preparing the marinade," she explains. Maria loves doing a tasting tour of all the different iterations from neighboring villages.
Beyond Bolo do Caco: 5 Iconic Dishes and Drinks You Must Try in Madeira - Cakes and More - Bolo de Mel
No trip to Madeira would be complete without sampling bolo de mel, the island's beloved honey cake. This sweet treat combines two local treasures - eggs from Madeira's free-roaming chickens and honey from bees feasting on wildflowers.When you bite into a freshly-baked slice, the sponge cake simply melts on your tongue thanks to a generous amount of farm-fresh eggs. Each bite reveals a subtle floral sweetness from the addition of honey harvested from apiaries across the island. This is comfort food at its finest.
Maria has fond childhood memories of gathering eggs still warm from the henhouse to make bolo de mel with her grandmother."We used eggs from our very own chickens, and honey from wild bees that always returned to my grandfather's hives," she recalls. For Maria, the taste brings back carefree days in the country. She still bakes her grandmother's treasured recipe on special occasions, savoring that familiar sweetness.
No two batches of bolo de mel taste exactly the same thanks to Madeira's diverse microclimates. Bees forage different fields and hillsides for nectar, from eucalyptus groves in the west to hydrangea in the east. Maria encourages visitors to sample slices across the island. "You'll find subtle differences in the honey flavor depending on where it was harvested," she shares. In seaside villages, the honey possesses refreshing floral and herbal notes, while in the interior highlands it tends towards richer, earthier tones.
While traditional bolo de mel is baked in a single large pan, creative bakers now offer inventive shapes and sizes too. For holiday celebrations, you can find bolo molded into wreaths, stars and seasonal shapes at village markets and pastry shops. Or stop by an egg vendor frying up petite bolo de mel patties known as broas, perfect for popping into your mouth on the go.
No matter the iteration, a glass of Madeira wine pairs beautifully with this beloved cake. The honey notes in bolo de mel mirror the sweetness in the wine. Splurge on slices accompanied by vintage Madeira at hotels and restaurants in Funchal for an elegant treat. Or enjoy casual bolo de mel with a glass of everyday Madeira during an afternoon fika break.