Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Additional photos by Barbara Angelakis
After an initial visit 35 years ago - when we had a great time and great food - we returned to Madeira, the island in the North Atlantic that was “discovered” in 1419 by the Portuguese navigator João Gonçalves Zarco, the one eyed.
Even though João Gonçalves Zarco who claimed Madeira for the Portuguese crown thought of the island as uninhabited, Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians and Vikings passed by and even landed on Madeira during their expeditions across the North Atlantic. This fact was confirmed by recent DNA test results on island animals, namely rats (they came with the Romans and the Vikings) and goats (came with the Greeks). Greek and Phoenician presence can also be verified by two very specific grape varieties that are present since ancient times and vinified to make some of Madeira’s famous wines: Moscato d’Alessandria, propagated by Phoenician seafarers throughout the Mediterranean and Malvasia di Candia - locally known as Malmsey - propagated by Minoan Cretan sailors and traders.
Grapevine and sugar cane plantations dominated the island’s early economy and, even though sugar, locally referred to as “white gold”, is no longer such an important commodity, Madeira wine production flourished during the seventeenth century and quickly became one of the permanent economic mainstays.
During the nineteenth and twentieth century Madeira became one of the early tourist destinations in Europe, mostly for the British aristocracy of the period. Reid’s Hotel, one of the earliest luxury hotel properties, became the center for very important moneyed guests, including such luminaries as Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden, George Bernard Shaw and many others.
Nowadays, Madeira attracts visitors not only from the UK but also from the rest of the world and there are numerous 5* hotel properties on the island catering to the luxury traveler, as well as other rated hotels and B&Bs. Actually, most of the important international hotel groups have properties in or around Funchal, the capital.
Many of the early wine producers have been absorbed into a few combined companies but, if you are interested in Madeira wines, there are still some very good wineries (locally known as wine lodges) where you can taste both current and old vintages.
As part of our trip we visited Blandy’s, one of the oldest and best known producers of Madeira wines, established in 1811. The Blandy family is the only Madeira family involved in the wine trade that is still in business managing their original wine company. Today, Michael and Chris Blandy, members of the 6th and 7th generation, are very much involved and Chris runs the company.
Some other producers that create exceptional Madeiras are: Henriques & Henriques, Justino’s, Barbeito and Pereira D’Oliveira.
During our trip we found a small winery that produces exceptional Malmsey (Malvasia) about 20 minutes from Funchal. The winery is part of Fajã dos Padres, an organic farm with large vegetable and exotic fruit gardens by the seashore; it also includes a restaurant. To get there you have to take a cable car that descents an almost vertical, approximately 300 meter, drop to the shore.
Mário, the owner and winemaker, is an electrical engineer by training and a wine lover by avocation. He makes his wines from grapes planted in the property’s gardens mostly hanging from pergolas, but there seemed to also be a couple bush trained vines. These vines were propagated from a single plant of Malvasia di Candia that Mário found somewhere on the property and was an original vine brought from Crete. His cellar has a small number of barriques and a few tonneaux and he offered us wine from a barrique marked Malvasia 2005 which was delicious. I’ll admit I not only eagerly accepted a second glass when it was graciously offered, but I also finished Barbara’s glass and asked for a third. No spitting in this tasting!
We then had lunch at the restaurant. Flatbread slathered with fresh butter and garlic; charcoal-grilled limpets with a light cheese, parsley, lemon and olive oil dressing; boiled octopus in a clay pot with fresh tomatoes, onion slices and parsley in an olive oil and lemon dressing;
wonderful colossal red shrimps charcoal-grilled and placed over fresh wild greens; a simple but delectable fish soup in a fresh tomato and onion broth; a good-sized slice of charcoal-grilled sea-bass steak with grilled potato chunks; fries, grape tomatoes, black olives over skewered steak slices… just simple but wonderful local fare. There was also a nice, light, aromatic white wine from mainland (Alentejo) vineyards. Everything was simple, extremely fresh, served while the sea nearby murmured an exotic song!
On another day, we re-did the famous or infamous depending on your experience “toboggan” ride, starting from Monte near the top of the mountain to the beginning of Funchal, riding a wicker basket sliding down the steep and slippery roadway at about 40km per hour! The Carairros do Monte, as the sledge drivers are known since the 1850s, wear white canvas uniforms and straw hats and control the basket by pulling ropes or pushing the basket, sometimes riding on the wooden runners and making use of their boots as brakes while avoiding the vehicular traffic that occasionally crosses the road in front of the toboggan. Not for the faint of heart… but great fun.
Life is very good in Madeira!
For information visit: www.madeiraallyear.com
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