Twenty-something chef João Pedro Ferreira, who enjoys spearfishing in his spare time, dives for limpets and sea snails for his menu at the newly opened Peixaria, just next to the Victorian Food Market. “You have to leave Madeira to clearly see the island again,” he says, bringing a plate of soft tuna tartare with jam to the table. It was the bananas, meanwhile, that lured a self-taught food-obsessed youngster named Selim Latrous here. Originally from Switzerland but living for years in Asia, he wanted to return to Europe but settle in the warm. “I remembered that bananas don’t like the cold, so it was either here or in the Canary Islands,” he tells me as we drive to the Paul da Serra plateau in February, leaving the heat of the coast below for a winter landscape. where the clouds tangle in the fir branches like ghosts. Two years later, he’s still amazed by the sheer variety of ingredients growing in the island’s seven microclimates, picking sorrel, borage, samphire and blueberries – and the yellow flowers that we pick carefully from the thorny gorse – for dishes of intricate beauty at their fair value. named restaurant The Wanderer.
On my last visit, winter conditions thwarted my ambition to hike the classic route between the two highest peaks, so I settled for a route that took me across the northeast corner, from Machico to Porto da Cruz, using the levadas which lace the island like a spider’s web – small channels about a foot in diameter, which collect cloud water filtered through the forest at 6,000 feet and channel it along outlines for irrigating the land. Children make boats out of bark and launch them downhill; hikers and trail runners take to the trails alongside streams and ravines, past passion fruit vines strung like festive lights and mossy banks where water ebbs like an underground cave. My guide, Fabio, tells me how he restored ghost trails across the island, interviewed retired farmers about the routes they used years ago, and set off with friends armed with machetes to reopen them . Then we walk in silence, listening only to the birdsong and the wind, finding our rhythm, stopping to turn from time to time and marveling at the distance covered. Walking these paths – “the habits of a landscape” according to nature author Robert Macfarlane – connects you deeply to an island whose interior has been defined by foot. The roads are relatively recent additions; 40 years ago, the villagers left at dawn to reach the other shore.