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Typical food and wines from Madeira(and where to taste them in Lisbon)

Updated: Apr 19

Portugal is a country of rich history, culture, and, without a doubt, exceptional culinary traditions. Among its treasures are the archipelagos of the Azores and Madeira, each with its own unique landscape, history, and food culture.

These Portuguese islands, thanks to their unique geographical position in the Atlantic Ocean, and also because of their own individual history and cultural influences, offer distinct gastronomic experiences than the mainland. 

When you travel in Portugal, of course we would love for you to have all the time in the world to explore our entire country, islands included, but we understand that time is a luxury not always as available as we would like it to be. During your trip to Lisbon though, you can explore the tastes of both Madeira and the Azores (see here!) without leaving our capital city.

For now, let’s explore together the best regional foods, typical dishes and distinct wines from Madeira, and learn where we can taste these Atlantic wonders in Lisbon itself!

Exploring the cuisine and wines from Madeira

Located in the North Atlantic Ocean, the archipelago of Madeira is known for its lush landscapes, rugged coastlines, and a climate that's eternally spring. Even though this autonomous region of Portugal is constituted by several islands and islets, only the two main islands of Madeira and Porto Santo are permanently inhabited.

The discovery of Madeira, a pivotal moment in the so-called Age of Discovery, dates back to the 15th century when Portuguese explorers under Prince Henry the Navigator, stumbled upon its shores. Officially claimed for Portugal in 1419, this event marked the beginning of Madeira's journey from an uninhabited oasis to an important member of the Portuguese realm.

The colonization of Madeira was done by settlers from Portugal as well as other European countries, particularly after the introduction of sugarcane, which transformed Madeira into an agricultural powerhouse. The sugar trade era laid the groundwork for Madeira's multicultural culinary influences, as spices and cooking techniques from Africa, Asia, and the Americas found their way to the island, blending with local traditions to create a unique gastronomic identity.

The decline of the sugar industry in the 17th century paved the way for the rise of Madeira wine, a product that would become synonymous with the island itself, as we will explore below.

Geography has played a pivotal role in shaping Madeiran cuisine beyond the influence of history and trade. The island's volcanic soil, mild climate, and mountainous terrain have contributed to a diverse agricultural output, from exotic fruits and vegetables and the succulent meat of animals grazed on mountain pastures. The surrounding Atlantic Ocean is a source of plenty of seafood, which, when combined with the agricultural produce, forms the basis of Madeira's gastronomy. 

Furthermore, Madeira's culinary and winemaking traditions have been continually influenced by the waves of immigrants and visitors who have left their mark on the island. From the Genoese and Flemish to British and American settlers, each group has contributed to the regional cuisine of Madeira, introducing new crops, methods of cooking, and even influencing the wine industry. This blend of tastes and traditions has resulted in a cuisine that is both distinctly Madeiran and a reflection of a multicultural history.

Madeira’s traditional dishes

Madeiran cuisine clearly showcases the island's resources and its historical ties with the sea.  These are the typical dishes from Madeira you should not miss:

Espetada Madeirense | Madeira style skewers

Espetada Madeirense is the quintessential dish that probably best represents the cuisine from Madeira, and it is also one which you will often find in other Portuguese restaurants in the mainland, even when they do not necessarily focus on Madeiran regional food.

Madeiran skewers consist of large chunks of beef, traditionally beef shoulder, marinated in garlic, salt, and sometimes wine or vinegar, skewered on bay laurel sticks. This method not only imparts a unique flavor but also pays homage to the island's abundant laurel forests, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The meat is then grilled over open flames, allowing the smoke from the laurel wood to enhance the beef's natural flavors. Espetada is often accompanied with fried corn (milho frito) and local flatbread (bolo de caco), which we explore into more detail below. While this dish’s basic ingredients remain consistent, variations in the marinade, such as the addition of bay leaf, oregano, or wine, may be done according to the chef. The choice of meat cuts can also vary, with some preferring the tenderness of filet or the richer flavors of rib cuts. But, overall, it is quite a straightforward dish which tastes incredible thanks to the amazing quality of Madeiran beef.

Carne de vinha d’alhos | the predecessor of vindaloo

Carne de vinha d'alhos is a dish made from pork marinated in wine (vinho), garlic (alhos), and spices, then cooked until soft. This method not only tenderizes the meat but also packs it with a rich, aromatic flavor profile that's become synonymous with Madeiran festivities, especially during the Christmas season.

Originating from Madeira's strategic role in the age of exploration, carne de vinha d'alhos is the culinary ancestor of the Indian vindaloo, showcasing the global journey of Portuguese cuisine and its influence on international culinary traditions. As it traveled to India with Portuguese explorers, it was adapted into vindaloo, blending local Indian flavors with the original recipe's essence. In India, amongst other things, wine wasn’t available and so it was replaced by palm vinegar and, as we all know, the amount of spices which ended up in the pot were and still are way more varied and used in larger amounts than  here in Portugal. This evolution underscores the exchange between Portugal and other cultures, and how Portuguese trade and colonialism impacted world foods, as these had a major impact on Portuguese typical ways of eating in return.

Cozido Madeirense | Madeiran boiled meal 

Cozido Madeirense is a heartwarming Madeiran stew which consists of a medley of ingredients such as sweet potatoes, yams, and local vegetables, simmered alongside pork, chicken, and beef, creating deep flavors which make the most of the islands’ produce and livestock. Madeiran cozido shares similarities with mainland Portugal's cozido à Portuguesa and the Azores' cozido das Furnas in its communal spirit and use of diverse, regional ingredients, yet it stands out with its distinctive Madeiran twist. This is Portuguese comfort food at its best!

Indeed this is a dish that celebrates Madeira's agricultural wealth, but that also showcases how traditional recipes adapt to incorporate local flavors. Cozido Madeirense not only offers a taste of the island's culinary heritage but also highlights the unity and adaptability of Portuguese cuisine across different regions.

Picadinho | marinated chopped meat

Picadinho (also known as picado) is fairly similar to carne de vinha d’alhos but, as its name translates as “chopped”, it already hints that it is meant to be shared and often snacked on while drinking, using a toothpick to grab some juicy meat. It consists of small, bite-sized pieces of meat, typically pork, marinated in a mixture of wine (preferably Madeira wine), garlic, and various spices, then cooked until tender. This unpretentious dish is more commonly enjoyed as a part of  tapas-style dining, but it can also be served as a main course, accompanied by traditional sides such as fried cornmeal (milho frito).

In Madeira cooking, marinating plays a crucial role in enhancing the meat's flavor and tenderness - while this may sound basic, this isn’t always the case with meats in the mainland but, then again, it depends on the recipe. After marinating, the meat is sautéed, often with onions and bay leaves, until it reaches a perfect balance of tenderness and a slightly caramelized exterior.

Lapas grelhadas | grilled limpets

Lapas grelhadas, or grilled limpets, is one of those dishes which we could simply say “taste like the sea”. Lapas are deeply rooted in both Madeiran and Azorean culinary traditions. Limpets, small shellfish that cling to rocks along the shores, are a delicacy in these island communities, revered for their unique flavor and texture. The simplicity of preparation, which consists in grilling the limpets in their shell with a touch of garlic, lemon, and butter, enhances their depth of flavor without masking it.

The process of gathering limpets involves local fishermen braving the Atlantic's rocky coastline to harvest these shellfish, embodying the close relationship between the people of the islands and their surrounding seas. Once harvested, the limpets require little more than a hot grill and a few simple ingredients to transform them into a dish that's both rustic and refined.

Lapas grelhadas are typically served right in their shells, accompanied by a slice of lemon to enhance their natural brininess. The dish is a popular choice in seaside restaurants, paired with a crisp, local white wine that complements the limpets' salty flavor. Seafood lovers know that fresh lapas are not a given in other Portuguese cuisine restaurants in Lisbon so, when they are available, you bet we make the most of the opportunity, typically enjoying them as an appetizer.

Bife de atum com milho frito | fresh tuna steak with fried polenta

Tuna steaks are a staple across Madeira, and the same applies in the Azores, even if the standard side dishes do vary amongst these two archipelagos. In Madeira, fresh tuna is served with milho frito, a crispy and savory cornmeal side similar to polenta.

The tuna steaks are typically marinated in a blend of garlic, olive oil, and sometimes wine or vinegar, which tenderizes the fish and infuses it with robust flavors. The steaks are then seared or grilled, achieving a perfect balance between the exterior's slight char and the interior's tender, moist texture. This cooking method highlights the quality of the local tuna, which is among the finest in the world. Milho frito, on the other hand, is made from cornmeal that's cooked until thick, then seasoned with flavors like garlic and parsley. Once set and firm, it's cut into cubes or rectangles and deep-fried until the exterior is golden and crisp, while the inside remains soft and flavorful. 

Filete de espada com banana frita | black scabbardfish with fried banana

Filete de espada refers to filets from the black scabbardfish, a deep-sea species found in the waters surrounding Madeira. This fish is notable for its elongated body and dark exterior, yet its flesh is white, tender, and mildly flavored, making it a favored ingredient in Madeiran cuisine. The preparation of the fish involves a light seasoning and a quick pan-fry to preserve its delicate texture and flavor. Paired with banana frita, or fried banana, this dish achieves a harmonious balance between savory and sweet, a characteristic feature of many tropical cuisines but particularly emblematic of Madeira's inventive culinary traditions. The bananas, usually ripe but firm, are sliced and fried until they caramelize slightly, offering a sweet contrast that complements the fish's subtle taste.

While banana frita is one of the most popular sides to accompany filete de espada, Madeiran cuisine offers a variety of other accompaniments that can enhance this dish. Options such as milho frito, crispy fried cornmeal, or a fresh salad made from local vegetables, provide alternative textures and flavors.

Castanhetas fritas | fried sergeant major fish

Castanhetas, known for their eye-catching blue and black stripes when alive, are small fish found in the surrounding Atlantic waters. Once prepared and cooked, these fish offer a tender, flavorful experience, often enjoyed as a snack, a starter, or even as a main course, accompanied by a squeeze of lemon to enhance the fish's natural taste. This dish exemplifies the Madeiran preference for fresh, locally sourced seafood, prepared in a way that honors the ingredient's natural flavors.

The process of making castanhetas fritas is really straightforward: the fish are cleaned, lightly seasoned with salt, and sometimes coated with a thin layer of flour to achieve a crispy exterior upon frying. They are then fried until golden, resulting in a dish that celebrates the freshness of the sea with every bite. The exterior crispness contrasts beautifully with the tender, moist flesh inside, offering a simple yet very satisfying bite!

If you are into fresh fish and seafood, you will have plenty of options to explore in Madeira. Even if all these options aren’t always reflected in regional Madeira restaurants in Lisbon, the menus will most likely have at least some fresh fish to grill (namely sea bream, grouper, mackerel, blue jack mackerel, or gilthead seabream, to name a few), as well as octopus (polvo).

Sopa de trigo | wheat soup

Soup is a staple dish in Portuguese cooking, and sopa de trigo highlights Madeira's deep-rooted agricultural traditions and the ingenuity of its people in using local produce. This nourishing soup combines whole wheat kernels (trigo pilhado) with an array of local vegetables, and occasionally meat. Crafted from the necessity to create sustaining and hearty meals from limited available ingredients, sopa de trigo connects diners to Madeira's past. Wheat was once a symbol of agricultural success and this dish exemplifies how historical circumstances and the environment have shaped Madeiran cooking.

Unlike other regional soups that may rely on specific ingredients or follow a given recipe, sopa de trigo’s preparation varies slightly from one household to another, and it is one of those dishes which you are most likely to ge to try when you are invited to eat with locals, versus finding it as an item at a restaurant’s permanent menu. If you’re keen, look for the daily specials (prato do dia) in down-to-earth eateries, during lunch hours.

Pudim de maracujá | passion fruit pudding

Passion fruit, or maracujá, thrives in Madeira's subtropical climate and it is used in a variety of dishes, mostly sweet, but its culinary potential is certainly not limited to desserts. Sometimes, you’ll see passion fruit as part of sauces for savory dishes too, such as for instance steak or fish filets.

Pudim de maracujá is a dessert which beautifully combines the vibrant tartness of passion fruit with the creamy sweetness of a traditional pudding, creating a treat that's both refreshing and indulgent. The base of passion fruit pudding typically involves a smooth blend of eggs, sugar, and milk, enriched with the addition of passion fruit pulp. This mixture is then gently cooked until it sets into a soft, custard-like consistency, often finished with a sweet passion fruit sauce that adds yet another delightful layer of flavor. The result is a dessert that perfectly balances the passion fruit's natural acidity with the creamy, sweet backdrop of the pudding.

Regional products from Madeira you should try

Banana da Madeira | Madeira bananas

The bananas from Madeira are smaller, sweeter, and more aromatic than their larger counterparts grown elsewhere, a distinction attributed to the island's volcanic soil and the microclimates created by its mountainous terrain. These factors, combined with traditional farming practices that emphasize quality over quantity, ensure that Madeira's bananas maintain their superior taste and texture. The cultivation of bananas plays a crucial role in the island's economy, supporting many local families and communities. These bananas are not only consumed locally but have also found their way into European markets, where they are prized for their distinctive flavor profile. In supermarkets all over Portugal, you will commonly see cheaper imported bananas side by side with Madeira bananas, which you will immediately recognize because of the tiny size and not so tiny price - but they are well worth it if you care about taste and quality!

Bolo do caco | Madeira sweet potato flatbread

Bolo do caco is synonymous with Madeira food! This flat, circular bread is made from wheat flour, yeast, water, and salt, with the distinctive addition of sweet potato, which contributes to its subtly sweet flavor and moist texture. A good bolo do caco is still cooked according to the traditional method, where the dough is cooked on a flat basalt stone slab, known as a caco, over a wood fire. This technique imparts a slight smokiness and a crisp exterior to the bread, making it an irresistible accompaniment to meals or a delightful snack when slathered with garlic butter.

Bolo do caco's versatility is another of its strengths. While traditionally served as an accompaniment to meals, it has found its way into contemporary cuisine, serving as the base for innovative sandwiches filled with ingredients like marinated pork or beef steak (prego), something which you will come across easily not only in Madeira but in modern eateries across Lisbon too. We can say that bolo do caco is a beloved staple not only in Madeira, but all over Portugal! 

Mel de cana | sugarcane honey

Mel de cana is the rich, dark syrup which is derived from the sugarcane that once dominated Madeira's landscape. Unlike bee honey, sugarcane honey is produced by condensing the juice extracted from sugarcane, resulting in a thick syrup reminiscent of molasses, but with a more  complex flavor profile that ranges from sweet to subtly bitter. Its production is a testament to Madeira's long history of sugarcane cultivation, introduced by early settlers in the 15th century, which quickly thrived due to the island's favorable climate and volcanic soil. Widely used as a natural sweetener in a variety of traditional dishes and desserts, mel de cana's significance in Madeiran cuisine cannot be overstated. 

Bolo de mel | sugarcane honey cake

Bolo de mel is perhaps the most iconic confection of Madeira and, as its origins can be traced back centuries, it has been so for quite a while. This rich, dense cake is made with sugarcane honey, a variety of spices like cinnamon and clove, and an assortment of dried fruits and nuts.  Traditionally, bolo de mel is prepared during the Christmas season, symbolizing the culmination of the year's harvest and festivities. However, its longevity and robust flavor have made it a year-round treat. The cake's texture and taste improve with age, making it a staple in Madeiran homes as a symbol of hospitality.

Broas de mel | spiced sugarcane honey cookies

Broas de mel are traditional Madeiran spiced honey cookies. They are celebrated for their aromatic blend of spices, like cinnamon, fennel, and clove, which are believed to have been influenced by the island's historical spice trade connections. Besides the spices, integral ingredients for these broas also include mel de cana (sugarcane honey), and often, a touch of sweet potato or pumpkin. These ingredients come together to create a moist, flavorful treat which, similarly to bolo de mel above, was originally prepared particularly around Christmas time, but which are now available at bakeries all year round.

Aguardente de cana | sugarcane spirit

Aguardente de cana is a clear spirit distilled from sugarcane juice, reflecting the island's deep-rooted sugarcane heritage. Madeira's favorable climate and fertile soil, ideal for sugarcane cultivation, paved the way for the production of this potent spirit, which has been cherished on the island since sugarcane's introduction in the 15th century. Aguardente de cana is not only consumed as a standalone drink but also serves as the base for the island's famous poncha da Madeira (see below).

Rum da Madeira | Madeira rum

Rum da Madeira distinguishes itself from other spirits as it is distilled from fresh sugarcane juice rather than molasses. This method of production, known as agricole rum elsewhere, highlights the purity and quality of the local sugarcane, contributing to a rum that is both nuanced and deeply flavorful. This rum is not only enjoyed neat or on the rocks but also plays a crucial role in the crafting of local cocktails, most notably the poncha da Madeira, which we look into next. 

Poncha da Madeira | Madeira’s punch

Poncha da Madeira is a traditional alcoholic beverage that stands as a symbol of Madeiran culture and hospitality. Originating from the island's fishermen, who concocted the drink to ward off the cold, poncha has since transcended its humble beginnings to become a beloved symbol of Madeira's social life. The classic recipe is a simple yet potent mix of local sugarcane spirit (aguardente de cana), freshly squeezed lemon or orange juice, and sugarcane honey (mel de cana), stirred vigorously with a caralhinho (which, if you’ll allow us, literally translates as little cock), a traditional wooden tool designed specifically for this purpose. Variations of poncha have evolved, incorporating other fruits like passion fruit, tangerine, and regional herbs. Poncha can be found pretty much everywhere in Madeira, including dedicated poncha bars. But if you aren’t traveling to Madeira any time soon, we have a Lisbon poncha bar recommendation for you below!

Brisa Maracujá | passion fruit soda

Brisa Maracujá is a refreshing non-alcoholic beverage that has captured the hearts of both locals and visitors in Madeira. Created back in 1970, the brand claims that this is the very first passion fruit based soft drink in the whole wide world! This fizzy soft drink combines the sweet and tart flavors of passion fruit with a bubbly texture, making it an ideal soda to enjoy on its own during the day, or as a mixer in cocktails by night. If you’re not into alcohol and will thus skip poncha da Madeira, Brisa Maracujá could be a good alternative!

Madeira wine and wines from Madeira (not the same thing)

Madeira's unique geographical and climatic conditions have cultivated a wine culture that is both diverse and distinctive, encompassing the world-renowned Madeira wine as well as a range of table wines that have begun to capture international attention.

Madeira wine, a fortified wine, has become synonymous with the island itself, enjoying global acclaim for its complexity, longevity, and the unique process of estufagem that it undergoes. This process involves heating the wine, traditionally through the warmth of the sun or in special tanks, which accelerates its aging and develops its characteristic rich flavors and aromas. The history of Madeira wine is deeply tied to the Age of Exploration when the island served as a key provisioning stop for ships. The discovery that casks of wine improved in quality after long sea voyages led to the intentional aging process that defines Madeira wine today. Madeira wine comes in a variety of styles, from dry to sweet, primarily produced from four grape varieties: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malmsey, each offering a different level of sweetness and complexity.

Beyond fortified wines, Madeira's wine scene is also home to an array of table wines, both white and red, that are gaining recognition for their quality and unique expression of the island's terroir. These wines are crafted from a variety of grapes, such as Tinta Negra Mole for reds and Verdelho for whites. The revival of interest in these wines has led to increased experimentation and innovation among Madeiran winemakers, who are leveraging the island's volcanic soil and microclimates to produce wines with distinctive profiles.

Madeira's wine culture continues to evolve and, as things stand right now, it offers a unique experience that, thankfully, it can be enjoyed in Lisbon to a certain degree, when you pair these wines with Madeiran cuisine in the restaurants we recommend below, or simply purchase a bottle to leisurely sip at home.

Where to buy typical products from Madeira in Lisbon

A Mar, a Terra

Regional products from the Portuguese islands, not only Madeira but also the Azores

📍Rua Marquesa de Alorna 22C, 1700-238 Lisbon

Produtos da Madeira - Albano Almeida, Lda.

A shop entirely dedicated to Madeiran products, not exactly in Lisbon, but in nearby Amadora

📍Estr. Serra da Mira 56, 2700-789 Amadora

Some of the best well-known regional products from Madeira can also be found in other non specialized stores. For instance, Garrafeira Nacional (Rua de Santa Justa 18) stocks a good variety of wines from Madeira, while some food products such as bolo do caco, bolo de mel and sugarcane honey from the island can be found at gourmet stores such as the supermarket at El Corte Inglés (Av. António Augusto de Aguiar 31), Mercearia Criativa (Av. Guerra Junqueiro 4A), and even A Vida Portuguesa (Largo do Intendente Pina Manique 23). 

Best regional Madeira restaurants in Lisbon:

O Madeirense

Open since 1979, this is the quickest way to “make a trip” to Madeira without leaving Lisbon

📍Amoreiras Shopping Center lj 3027, 1070-103 Lisbon

Restaurante Típico Ilha da Madeira

Feast on the best of Madeiran regional dishes, in the heart of Campo de Ourique

📍Rua Campo de Ourique 33, 1250-059 Lisbon

Madeira Pura

Drink poncha da Madeira in downtown Lisbon

📍Rua do Terreiro do Trigo 72 74, 1100-604 Lisbon

Portuguese cuisine is a world waiting to be explored, filled with surprises far beyond the mainland's borders. As you discover Lisbon, remember that Cooking Lisbon is here to help you dive deeper into the local ingredients and culinary traditions. Join us for a savory or sweet cooking experience in the heart of Lisbon, and together, let's indulge into Portuguese cuisine!

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