Wednesday, June 8, 2011
A Taste of Madeira
We just returned from a fantastic trip to Madeira. It's a Portuguese island but actually closer to Morocco than Portugal. I'm not even sure how to begin to describe our days there, so I'll just grab a glass of wine and plunge in.
After landing on a tiny airstrip perched at the edge of the island (scary!) we made our way to Funchal, the largest city on Madeira. It didn't take us long to realize that we were in paradise - green, lush, flowery, rocky, hilly, waterfally - Madeira has it all.
We stayed at a quiet B&B outside of Funchal and walked into town as soon as we dropped off our luggage. The heart of the old town is filled with lively shops, beautiful buildings constructed with black volcanic stone, quaint restaurants and cute cafes, but we bee-lined for our first Madeira wine tasting. Oh, we may have stopped to look at a church or something first. I don't recall. Blandy's Old Wine Lodge was our first REAL destination.
We'd thought that fortified Madeira wine was pretty much the same as Port, but we were wrong, wrong, wrong. Madeiras are generally made from a single grape, not a blend like most Port. Like Port, brandy is used to stop the fermentation and boost the alcohol level. Unlike Port, Madeiras are heated (?!) either by the sun or artificial means, to create interesting depth and character. Madeiras range from perky, dry Sercial (the name of the grape and the wine) to sweet and luscious Malmsey. Verdelho grapes produce a medium-dry wine and Bual grapes produce a medium-sweet wine. Sercials are great, very slightly chilled before a meal, and fragrant, nutty Verdehlo wines pair beautifully with savory or sweet dishes.
Nerd alert / Historical note... Using heat to enhance the flavor and character of the wines was a lucky accident. Back in the day, ships would carry barrels of Madeiran wine (mostly to keep the sailors happy, I'm guessing) that was enhanced with brandy to stabilize it. After spending months and months on ships, the wine actually improved in flavor. At first it was thought that agitation was the key to its deliciousness. Eventually, wine makers realized that as the wine spent time on the warm ships, passing back and forth over the equator, the heat enhanced the wine and gave it remarkable characteristics. Blandy's is a high-volume operation and uses hot water flowing though pipes to warm their wines instead of loading it on ships and sending it out to sea. Smart idea!
On day 2 of our trip, we stopped at the smallest wine producer on the island, Artur de Barros e Sousa. This 4th generation operation is run by 2 brothers who do everything by hand. When we visited their wine lodge, one of the brothers (who was busy putting labels on bottles using a pot of glue and a little brush) invited us to make ourselves at home, so we did our own tour through their 17th century buildings. They use natural sunlight to warm their wines and we poked around their wine attics (quite different from wine cellars!). We tasted the 4 main types of wine and even a special Verdelho from 1983 - the year I graduated from high school!! The 1983 was delicious - smooth and fragrant with hazelnut aroma. We were sad to leave the cozy tasting room, but felt like we had made a new friend.
In addition to the amazing wines, we also had some incredible food! We had pork roasted on bay leaf sticks as well as super fresh squid and prawn skewers and house-made beer at The Beer House. Its location at the Funchal marina made for optimum people and watercraft watching.
Funchal has a great market with gorgeous flowers, meat, fish and produce from the island. We were drawn to a stall with an amazing array of different types of passion fruit, quirky looking philodendron fruit (tastes like a banana pineapple combo), huge custard apples, and wrinkly Surinam cherries. We couldn't resist the free samples and before we knew it we were holding a bag containing $30 worth of fruit! After sheepishly putting some back, we tiptoed away with a mere $20 worth.
Our second night, we went to a little place called Venda da Donna Maria for more traditional Madeiran food. The fresh fish and grilled meat were great, but my favorite treat was milho frito, cubes of deep fried corn mush - crispy outside and creamy inside. I could have eaten a bucket of them!! When we asked about various dessert liqueur options, our server insisted on bringing us their house-made Tin Tan Tum. YUM YUM YUM! It was the perfect ending to a memorable meal - red wine steeped with cinnamon, raisins, sugar and brandy. I need to figure out how to make it at home!!
Beyond the food and beverages, a strange and wonderful highlight from our time in Funchal involved a trip up the mountain to Monte. In Monte, we boarded a large wicker basket and placed our fate in the hands of two guys sporting goat skin boots and straw hats. Together, the 4 of us careened down the mountain while the guys steered and I squealed and giggled. It was a crazy ride I'll never forget!!
Before the development of more modern forms of transportation, this was a traditional method for transporting produce and humans down the mountain. This very old fashioned ride down the mountain had a rather modern ending. Maybe 1/4 of the way down we noticed a young man with a nice camera taking our picture; when we got out of the wicker basket at the bottom, maybe 3 minutes later, another young man was standing there with a mounted 5x7 picture of us shooting down the mountain (see below) ... digital camera + the internet = the modern information age in Madeira.
Beautiful public spaces, interesting gardens and wine tasting at every turn make Funchal a great town to explore. After 2 days of strolling, sipping and soaking up the ambiance in Funchal, we rented a car and explored the rest of the island. I'll let Eric tell you about that part. To be continued...
at 10:46 PM