Wednesday, 29 February 2012


I decided to take my two grand daughters to Lanzarote for half term, leaving the husband at home with his cat.  The trip did not start well because our plane was delayed for almost three hours leaving Bournemouth airport which meant that we arrived on Lanzarote in the dark and lost our first evening.  We were tired and hungry and all went to bed after a bowl of cereal.

The following morning things cheered up a bit, the weather was glorious, our accommodation comfortable and the neighbourhood on investigation proved to be very nice.  We were staying just outside Playa Blanca at The Rubicon Marina, there was a comfortable fifteen minute walk into the centre of Playa Blanca along a promenade by the sea.  The promenade had the back entrances of two or three major hotels and there was a magnificent bougainvillae hedge for a good stretch of it.  There was also a lovely beach - Lanzarote is a bit short of beaches so it was a bonus to have Playa Dorada in walking distance.  There was one of those adult outdoor gyms on this little walk too and number two grand daughter took full advantage of it.  The girls are aged 13 and 15 and Lanzarote was chosen as being a bit more lively than my usual haunts.  I was surprised at how much I liked Lanzarote, I thought I was going to be in a very obviously touristy place and instead found immense beauty and culture everywhere I looked.

Friday, 10 February 2012


Most of the things I wanted to do and see were in Funchal so I ended up spending quite a few full days there.  The shuttle bus from our accommodation dropped and collected us from the marina area so we had the opportunity to see the cruise ships which make the island part of their itinerary.  Because the island rises out of the sea practically vertically the big ships can anchor very close to the shore so can be inspected in some detail easily without the aid of binoculars.  There was at least one ship in every single day and one day there were three.  Of the ships seen two impressed me particularly for different reasons.  The Royal Caribbean Spirit of Independence is absolutely massive.  I have never seen anything like it before and am certainly not tempted to go on it.  There are fourteen passenger decks and more than four thousand people can be carried.  Add on more than a thousand staff and we are looking at the population of the small market town in which I live.   The second ship - which might tempt me on a cruise - was German and called Aida.sol which came in twice during our visit.  They had bicycles on board and there were organised trips round the island on the bikes for about fifty people at a time.  We saw groups of ten being competently led - all properly dressed with matching helmets.  We saw groups on ordinary bicycles and some using electric ones.

I have never been particularly good at heights and foolishly was persuaded to go up to Monte and then the Botanical Gardens on the cable car.  I broke out in a cold sweat, felt physically nauseous and ended up doing the journey with my eyes closed - which helped a bit.  Although I really enjoyed both Monte and the lovely garden I was unable to return on the cable car and caught the bus back, wasting my return ticket.  The day we were at Monte one of the big ships was in and we saw 19 separate groups of fifty being led around.  A bit crowded, to say the least.

There are two rivers running through the middle of Funchal which were practically dry whilst we were there, the severe floods two years ago caused the banks to be rebuilt and they are covered in concrete with bridges across to navigate from one side to the other.  Some bright spark had the idea of stringing wires across the top and planting bougainvillae at the sides which have grown across and there is now a fabulous sight - a mass of scarlet and purple beautifully scented.

The pavements are amazing, they are made from stones in black and white and have been made into patterns.  It is really interesting to simply walk around looking at them - the ones in front of the theatre are works of art.  Thinking about it, Funchal is one big work of art.  The architecture is amazing, the Bank of Portugal has most impressive wrought iron everywhere, the Blandy Wine Lodge is beautifully maintained with original shutters, the theatre is lovely and the municipal buildings really interesting.  I had intended to go to Reid's for afternoon tea but never managed it, our trip on the open top bus enabled me to look over the walls though and I would really have loved to have gone there.


Sunday, 5 February 2012

Madeira Churches

One of my passions is ecclesiastical architecture and having never been to anywhere Portuguese before I had high expectations which were not disappointed.  Funchal has two of the major churches of the island which are beautifully decorated.  The Cathedral looks quite small from the outside but on entering seems to be about three times the size of initial perception.   The second major church is that of the Jesuit College which is astonishingly filled with gilt and art.  The Stations of the Cross there were bronze casts which had a vagueley Art Deco style to them and there are altars all around the walls.  Well worth a visit.

We took the cable car up to Monte to see the church there which was quite an experience.  I am not awfully good at heights and ended up returning via the bus and not using my return ticket.  I broke out into a cold sweat and felt very nauseous - even with my eyes closed.  The church itselt was lovely though, it is at the top of a massive flight of steps and pilgrims climb them on their knees as an act of faith.

We hired a taxi for a whole day to see more of the island and went to the north coast to Sao Vicente and the church dedicated to St Vincent there was extremely pretty.  Quite small but filled with colour and a very peaceful atmosphere.

Funchal has a museum dedicated to sacred art which was well worth the entrance charge.  All the artefacts and paintings have come from all over the island as churches have closed and placed in a central gallery opposite the Jesuit College.  There was some amazing filigree silver gilt exhibited, a particularly beautiful chalice comes to mind.  There were also some astonishing beds there - one depicting the last supper with Jesus and the Disciples on the bed head and a snarling looking Judas on the foot clutching a coin bag. 

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Madeira Food

The food of Madeira is more or less Mediterranean in that there are lots of fresh vegetables and fruit but some bits are quite stodgy.  The local bread is rather different from anything I have come across before, but none the worse for that.  The bread is made from a combination of grains and sweet potatoes.  It is not uncommon to find cornbread that has been enhanced with a good dollop of mashed sweet potato.  The dough is proved and then patted into discs about six inches in diameter and around an inch or so thick and then baked on hot stones, being turned after about twenty minutes for a further ten minutes the other side.  This results in a dense dampish loaf with a distinctive aroma and flavour.  It keeps pretty well in exactly the same condition for two or three days.  The garlic bread is made by cutting across the middle of the loaf and spreading garlic butter on both sides, sandwiching together and baking again. 

Because Madeira has no shores and therefore no beaches (there is one but I think it was man made) there is no endemic seafood or shellfish.  Limpets are available but I never saw them for sale in the shops, or even the magnificent market - the Mercado des Lavators.  A wonderful art deco building which has three floors of mainly food substances.   The ground floor and first floor are mainly fruit and vegetables with all the butchers around the outside and accessed from their own doors on the street rather than from the market side.  The middle of the ground floor is an empty square most of the week but on Friday the peasants come in from the countryside and sell their wares - wonderful herbs and oranges.  I cannot forget the sight of the flower stalls, Birds of Paradise at E5 for a dozen seemed an amazing bargain - but they do seem to grow wild in the countryside. 

The fish market in the basement sells all the local fish, particularly available is the Black Scabbard Fish - quite possibly the ugliest fish I have ever come across, even uglier than monkfish.  I ate the Black Scabbard on three different occasions at restaurants and it was a nice fish - the taste and texture being a bit cod like but rather softer.  One of the times I ordered it I could have been in Brighton because it was simply battered and served with chips.  The second time it had been wrapped in an omelette, the soggy eggy cover did nothing for it.  The third time it had been simply grilled on the bone but was served with an asonishing array of carbohydrates, rice, boiled potatoes and boiled yam - with a few Brussels sprouts and boiled carrots on the side.  I thought that Ford Madox Ford said that the South of France was heaven indeed because the Brussels sprout would not grow so far south?

We did have a little mini market on site which was fine for most stuff but I can never resist wandering around the local food shops and seeing what is on offer.  The supermarket in Funchal that I used (called Sa) had chicken carcasses for 50C each so I bought a couple whilst there to make fabulous chicken stock for soups.  I could also buy plenty of fresh vegetables and was very taken with a type of runner bean unlike any I have previously encountered.  Very flat and with a satin smooth pod, no strings to remove and cooked beautifully in about two minutes in boiling salted water.  Very tender and delicious.  I looked for packets of seed to bring home but there were none to be had.

Madeiran bananas are absolutely tiny - short and stumpy and when yellow they peel very easily.  The scent from a peeling banana overwhelms the room and I cooked some with the local rum made from sugar cane which were declared fabulous.  I bought some odd looking fruits from the market and cannot remember the name, they were about the size of a lychee and had a stone of about the same size inside.  The fruits themselves were like little Scotch Bonnets and rather tart so I stewed them with a little sugar and poured hot over vanilla ice cream - delicious.  The tangerines were picked from the tree the morning I bought them and they practically peeled themselves, leaving gorgeous juicy segments.

Dairy produce on Madeira is a bit mixed - all the pasteurised milk is imported and the milk ship comes in from Portugal on Tuesdays.  UHT is available when the fresh milk runs out - as it inevitably does after about Saturday - so I took the precaution of buying a couple of litres on Fridays to keep us going.  I did find some interesting cheese - a lovely goats cheese with a hard yellow rind and a soft crumbly interior and a rather nice soft cheese made from sheep's milk which had been rolled in pimento powder. 

The cake shops were amazing - really beautiful looking cakes (heavy on the thick custard) with pretty iced tops which all meant something.  I had the most gorgeous soft brioche type "horn" filled with the custard.  Another one was a sort of chocolate roulade sprinkled with Madeira wine and spread with custard before rolling.  There was a lovely sort of milles feuilles filled with custard - the pastry truly like leaves it was so thin - and then iced with a coffee flavour.  And the custard tarts - oh, the custard tarts.  I will dream about the custard tarts until I go to my grave.  The pastry thin and crispy and the filling soft and warm with the top blackened because of the burnt sugar.  Oh - the custard tarts.

I have to stop for a bit - the thought of those tarts makes me want some breakfast - but I shall return.