Friday, 6 June 2014

Sampling Madeira

This blog post comes from Funchal on the island of Madeira, part of the archipelago of Madeira, which is situated in the mid-Atlantic Ocean. It lies about 1000 kilometres (621miles) to the south-west of Portugal and is about 600 km (372 miles) off the coast of Morocco on the African continent.

The islands - two now inhabited named Madeira and Porto Santo, and two uninhabited ‘The Desertas’- were discovered in 1418 by Portuguese navigators Joao Goncalves Zarco and Tristao Vaz Teixeira (apologies for the lack of the proper Portuguese accents on the letters) when they were blown off course by a fierce Atlantic storm. Landing on the island they named Porto Santo (holy harbour) they realised the nearby large shadow was not a ferocious storm cloud, but was another island. 

The following year, 1419, they returned with the backing of Infante Dom Henrique de Avis, Duke of Viseu, better known as Prince Henry the Navigator. That does not mean that they were the first to chart the islands, since the islands are mentioned elsewhere before 1419, but is merely that they were first to claim them for a European crown. None of the Madeiran islands had native inhabitants and first colonisation was by the above sailors, their families, a few aristocrats, some people of ‘modest condition’ and some prisoners used to work the lands. Since Funchal is virtually carved out of a very steep mountainside, that was not an easy task as they built houses, created cultivation fields and irrigation channels.  

As mentioned in a previous blog, I took a sail around the Bay of Funchal in the replica ship Santa Maria de Colombo, a reconstruction said to be typical of the ships used by the above navigators. My pirate navigators were all far too handsome to be nasties, and I met Vasco Da Gama, resident parrot!

Though engine power was used to get in and out of the harbour, the day had sufficient wind for us to be under sail power for part of the voyage – a fine and gentle experience as we slowly passed along the coast which has the most fantastic geological strata.

The name Madeira means ‘wood’ in Portuguese, originating from the dense wood cover of ancient trees (laurisilva /laurel); the rich biodiversity of the island a beauty to behold. Madeira’s worth in the plant world gained it the title of a ‘World Heritage Site’ in 1999.

Funchal was declared the capital of the island, by Royal decree of King Manuel I in 1508. The name comes from ‘funcho’ meaning fennel (Foeniculum vulgare). By the nineteenth century, European physicians were sending their clients to Madeira for recuperation believing that its pleasant and soothing climate would cure their respiratory problems. The temperature is mild, a typical summer day around a high of 26 Deg C (79/80 F) and a low of 18/19 Deg C (64/66 F). Winter days are typically 19 Deg C / 66 F. For me, coming from an often cold and rainy Scotland, any day on Madeira is a great day!

The above is the official Portuguese version of the claiming of the islands but those of us who know my writing of Celtic/Roman times will realise I was particularly pleased to find out that the historian Plutarch makes a mention of the military commander Quintus Sertorius having discovered islands on his travels in 72 AD -‘The islands are said to be two in number separated by a very narrow strait and lie 10,000 furlongs from Africa. They are called the Isles of the Blessed..’ This description is believed to refer to Madeira.

Pliny- author, naturalist and Roman commander- who died in 79 AD at the time of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius (though he is thought to have died from natural causes rather than volcanic asphyxiation) also refers to islands which lie in the correct geographical location for Madeira as the ‘purple islands’. From my short stay on Madeira that’s good enough for me!  

Products of Madeira are bananas (the small curvy variety) sugar cane, sugar beet, grapes, fine embroidery ...other products... and Madeira wine. Tourism also plays a huge part in keeping the economy vibrant.

My husband and I went on an evening tour to a traditional restaurant which offered traditional food and entertainment- a fun evening! We ate a simple home made tomato soup (could also have been vegetable) preceded by a round of traditional bread - Bolo de Caco - which was delicious served with garlic butter. 

The meat course was Espetada - large chunks of beef rubbed in garlic, salt and bay leaf. They are marinated in a mixture of Madeira wine, red wine vinegar and olive oil for the duration of an afternoon. After being skewered onto a bay (laurel) stick the meat chunks are grilled over smouldering wood chips. We had the beef served to us on a long metal brochette (skewer) which was hung from a custom made slot in the candle holder bolted to the table.  

The food was served along with a Madeira wine aperitif (sherry like), some local red or white wine and ended with a Madeiran liqueur chaser- also of the 'sweet sherry' taste. 

The traditional dancing was different from any other Mediterranean style I have encountered before. There was a lot of bending from the waist with one arm behind the back – very energetic formation dances full of movement with lots of colour in the costumes worn. Unfortunately, it was difficult to take photos since the action was very close to our table. The music was from a set of almost unknown instruments, the accordian and simple drum being the more recognisable. The 'Clacker' on the right of the above photo was like a toy for adults or children- little figures suspended from pull-strings which made a fantastic accompaniment to the clapping  of the dancers. 

Diners were encourged to join in at the end of the evening, yours truly not having a clue what to do in what turned out to be a sort of line dance after a lot of initial clapping! 

More updates will be forthcoming on our Maderia trip. Keep tuned in… for my next post of fine orchids.


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