Mountains, markets and Michelin menus
Benefitting from a mild-mannered climate, Madeira’s agreeable disposition and picture-postcard looks make it a favourite holiday haunt for many. Indeed, the territory was named World’s Leading Island Destination 2015 at the World Travel Awards.
Lured by this glowing endorsement, my arrival in Madeira coincided with the inauguration of a prestigious annual gourmet food festival, the Rota das Estrelas.
Translating as the Stars Route, the festival is named for the cache of Michelin-starred chefs invited to take part in Portugal’s premier gastronomic event.
The venue was The Cliff Bay – a swanky five-star hotel property perched on a bluff overlooking Funchal, Madeira’s spruce, oceanfront capital. The Cliff Bay has kick-started Rota das Estrelas since its inception in 2010, where the stage is the hotel’s Il Gallo d’Oro restaurant. Host chef Benoît Sinthon is himself a proud recipient of a coveted star.
Over five days in February, those fortunate enough to have secured a reservation were treated to signature cuisine prepared by some truly remarkable chefs, maestros like the Dutch trio Michael van der Kroft, Erik van Loo and Richard van Oostenbrugge, all of them two-star veterans, and Austrians Hans Neuner and Dieter Koschina, also double star kitchen wizards who both in fact work in Portugal.
The deliciously creative plates offered up by each chef and his team not only demonstrated culinary ingenuity and flawless technique, it underlined why Madeira is so highly regarded for its variety of foodstuffs. Not for nothing is it dubbed the “garden isle”.
“I never cease to be amazed by the bounty our island and the seas around her provide,” he writes in a recently published book that highlights his dishes inspired by traditional Madeiran gastronomy.
And nowhere on the island is this rich culinary heritage better represented than at Funchal’s Mercado das Estrelas.
A veritable paradise for food lovers, the fabulously chaotic and vibrant ‘Farmers’ Market’ is a brilliantly coloured kaleidoscope of tropical fruit and vegetables, exotic flowers and the freshest of fish.
I spent a good hour meandering my way through this extraordinary two-tier arcade, breathing in a rhapsody of aromas and eagerly accepting “tasters” – slithers of fruit handed out by vendors in an attempt to bag a sale.
I tried the peculiar custard apple (anona), its creamy-white flesh banana-like in flavour with hints of pineapple. I loved the little red, shiny Brazilian cherries (pitangas) that were offered by a rotund and jolly lady whose grin would shame a Cheshire cat. And the Madeiran banana (banana prata), which is grown year-round on the island, was indeed the sweetest I’d ever tasted.
Washing lines of dried chillies resembled flame-hued necklaces, while sprigs of pungent bay leaves (laurus) reminded me that the island’s forest of ancient laurels (laurisilva) is a cherished World Heritage Site.
Benoît Sinthon is a regular customer at Mercado dos Lavradores, and his menus are designed around the high quality ingredients found there. And by way of introduction, he made a point of escorting his Michelin cohorts on a morning foray to stock Il Gallo d’Oro’s kitchen before the festival opened. One described the place as an “equatorial market” such was his surprise at the profusion of sub-tropical produce.
My needs, however, were more humble. I snapped up bolo de mel, a rich spicy cake made from molasses and crammed with almonds, walnuts, assorted dried fruits and citrus zest. It’s a sweet speciality of Madeira and absolutely scrumptious!
Another regional goodie is bolo do caco, bread made with wheat flour and sweet potato puree and shaped as a flat circular bap. I ordered mine hot and asked the baker for a lashing of garlic butter. I washed it down with a shot of sumo de cana de açucar – juice extracted from sugar cane laced with lemon and a generous measure of aguardente, the local firewater.
Mention Madeira and the likely retort is ‘wine’. Indeed, the island is celebrated for its fortified tipple, a world-renowned drink that’s helped prop up the economy for over 300 years.
The Kitchen Alive walking dinner afforded opportunities to sample several noble vintages – an intense, treacley-sweet Malmsey made a great impression, but then so did a rather pleasant Sercial with all its woody, savoury notes. For a true sense of place though, book a guided tour at the historic Blandy’s Wine Lodge in Funchal town centre.
Madeira is a year-round prospect with broad appeal. Usually regarded as an unhurried, genteel option where high tea and early nights prevail, the island has nevertheless come of age as an outstanding adventure tourism destination. Sure, a leisurely afternoon exploring any one of the rainbow-flecked and perfumed botanical gardens is still a highpoint for many. But for those with adrenaline running through their veins, canyoning a tumbling waterfall or mountain biking above the cloud line is the only way to live.
And for others, it’s all about gastronomy.
For the serious foodie, Madeira needs to be digested slowly. Without doubt, securing a table for Rota das Estrelas will introduce the palate to imaginative and sophisticated interpretations of Madeiran cuisine. But take time too to travel into the interior to places like Abrigo do Pastor for hearty homemade fare.
If Rota das Estrelas has whetted your appetite you can still follow the stars to the Portuguese mainland, where the festival continues throughout the year.
Next stop is The Yeatman in Oporto on 18 March. The festival takes a diversion into Spain and Nectari in Barcelona from 5-7 May before visiting Lisbon and Restaurante Eleven on 17 June. Largo do Paço in Amarante, central Portugal, will host the event in October and in the same month the Stars Route will head south to Bon Bon in the Algarve where Rui Silvestre, Portugal’s newest Michelin chef, directs the kitchen. Finally in November, the Algarve’s Vila Joya will close the Rota das Estrelas 2016 gourmet food festival.
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