I first visited Madeira in the early 1980s, and it has been one of my favorites places ever since. Funchal, the harbor where Marina was docked before we crossed the Atlantic, is a horseshoe-shaped inlet, named by the Portuguese sailors who saw wild fennel growing everywhere when they discovered this semi-tropical paradise. The name is derived from the word funcho, which means “fennel” in Portuguese.
The Mercado dos Lavradores in Funchal is known for the famous Fish Hall market that is housed in a stepped-down, completely tiled, football-sized area of this center city market. Most of the fish is gone by noon, so if you want to see it in all its glory, it’s best to get there early.
The most infamous fish of Madeira is the black scabbard, espada preta, which looks like it belongs in a museum of natural history instead of on a grill. Madeira is a sport fisherman’s paradise, and this fish market is a testament to the abundance of the waters around this volcanic island at the gateway to the Mediterranean.
After a stroll through the Fish Hall, I took to the fruit stalls, where I am always amazed by what this island offers to humble even the most studious chef.
There were surinam cherries that looked like habanera peppers, hybrids of passion fruits in so many varieties it was staggering, banana-pineapple fruits that you eat by harvesting a corn-like kernel, and then your “regular” (aka recognizable) mango, papaya, cherimoya and sugar cane.
After sampling lots of fruits (and buying 60 euros worth to share with my culinary students), I hustled over to the vegetable aisles. There is always something comforting about the vegetable stalls here at the Mercado.
Perhaps it makes me feel that the $60,000 I spent getting my CIA culinary degree and the 1,000 products we had to master in our product identification class were well worth the sleepless nights and vegetable flash cards!
Walnuts are in season, and the baskets overflowing with my favorite nut made me smile and remember the days spent with my grandmother shelling walnuts for her Thanksgiving pies.
The last stop before lunch was the spice shop in the back upstairs corner of the Mercado, where I have been buying my piri piri for decades.
The shopkeeper was convinced that all I wanted to do was take photos, but after I exhausted my shutter, I picked up little packages of warm chili powders and dried peppers. I love the dried sage and oregano from Madeira; something about the sea air and volcanic soil makes these two herbs very special here.
Before exiting the Mercado, I saw a stand with hundreds of seeds for sale, in the event that I might want to try to replicate the splendor of Madeira back home (as if this were possible!).
Off I went up the steep incline to my favorite restaurant in Funchal, Adega da Quinta. In 2012 we will be taking guests here for cooking classes and lunch – that’s how much we love the place!
Madeira is famous for its espetada – meat skewered on laurel branches with bay leaves and then grilled over a searing hot charcoal fire. I was enchanted by the custom of hanging the espetada from a metal post in the middle of the table, and the smiling waiter made me feel welcome in a foreign land.
Lunch also included a delicious flatbread cooked on the open flame with sides of fried potatoes and lots of fabulous local wines. The Madeirans are known for their fortified wines, but their prowess in the traditional winemaking realm is on the rise.
After lunch I stopped by an orchid grower who has become quite famous for cultivating hundreds of varieties of orchids on the island over the past few decades. It was a great way to say goodbye to our summer in the Mediterranean and to set off across the Atlantic for a winter in the Caribbean.
Executive Chef, Bon Appétit Culinary Center