Gateway to the World

Heart of the Portuguese nautical discoveries and a strategic location since its population, so goes the History of Madeira.

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Discovered in 1419 by the Portuguese, the population of Madeira required its first settlers to bring with them all they would need for their settlement on these islands, seeds and domestic animals included. This settlement served as the springboard for the Portuguese overseas expansion which would take place in the following decades and is the beginning of the country’s definitive link with the rest of World.

In agriculture, the highlight is sugarcane and the model for its plantations is then taken to Brazil. Also exported were the island’s government system and the model for its division of power. In the 15th century, by order of Prince Henry of Portugal, Madeira is split into three admiralcies: Funchal, Machico and Porto Santo.

The archipelago also served as the ‘testing grounds for models which then were exported to the Portuguese colonies and related expansion areas’, claims historian Paulo Rodrigues.

Since the beginning of this expansion, ‘the harbour of Funchal, and Madeira itself, due to its proximity with Africa, has served as direct support for the Portuguese fortresses that used to exist along the African coast’, adds Paulo Rodrigues.

Adding to this proximity, the archipelago was part of the routes travelling to South America due to the trade winds that blow from the north of Europe and helped to navigate towards the south. As part of that route, Madeira was ‘the last stop where fresh and safe supplies could be found’ for a long journey.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, several well-known personalities passed through the harbour of Funchal and the island illustrating the importance of this island as a true trading post in the Atlantic. James Cook on his way to what we now know as Australia; the Portuguese court, on their runaway to Brazil due to Napoleon’s invasions; Napoleon Bonaparte himself, years later, on the way to his exile. And these are but a few examples.

In the 19th century, the island turns into a therapeutic haven for those struck with TB. It was for that reason that several figures such as Princess of Amélia of Portugal and the Empress Sisi of Austria came to the island and ‘bolstered the tourism of our region’, refers architect and researcher Rui Campos Matos. The result is that Madeira became one of ‘the oldest touristic regions of Europe’.

The change to coal moved vessels, the arrival of hydroplanes in the 20th century, and even the passing of a blimp (the first to traverse Europe and the United States of America in 1928) all boosted the idea that the harbour of Funchal was a true gateway to the island and a passage to the rest of the world. Nowadays half a million tourists a year get to Madeira via the Atlantic.


Article written in 2017.

Ocean's bounty

The Fish Square at the Farmers’ Market displays an aspect of Madeira’s identity and its connection to the Atlantic.


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It’s Saturday and the clock shows it is 9 a.m. At the Fish Square of the farmers’ Market, the people coming in and out are in large numbers and make for distinct sense of hustle and bustle. The atmosphere is one of many colours and shrouded in an intense smell of the sea. Fish are laid out in several stalls and their freshness comes out of each and every one of them.

For many Madeirans this is the day to go out and buy their share of fresh, regional products, including fish. Tourists enjoy the morning to satisfy their curiosity and see the makings of the traditional regional fish market and what can be found there. Most tourists get carried away and immortalize their visit by taking pictures. They talk to the sellers and want to know each and every little detail about the fish they sell in the square.

This is where we find José Gonçalves. He has 40 years of experience, not counting the many he spent as a child helping his family out with the business. He lives and breathes the market’s tradition on a daily basis. His routine starts at seven in the morning, the time around which he receives almost half a ton of fish for his stall.

‘The market opened in1940’, he tells Essential. ‘The merchants from the old square came here later. They all came here to work and that was when the market started to take off’.

At the Fish Square, people seek essentially fresh fish off the Atlantic Madeiran coast. Coming mostly from open sea, we find ‘our cleaner wrasses, our groupers, or red snappers, our black scabbards and tuna, which is always fresher here. People come here seeking quality’ emphasises José Gonçalves. There is also fresh octopus but the fish sold here need not be strictly from Madeiran waters. Also for sale are the ‘gilt head breams and snooks from Greece and Spain and the wrasses and groupers from the Azores’.

For Madeirans, the fish that is most bought, as per the dictates of tradition, is the black scabbard and tuna. ‘The market can be quite empty when there’s no tuna, it becomes fuller when there is tuna’ points out José Gonçalves. Other than these, the most sought fish are the Atlantic horse mackerels, when it is their season.  

For tourists, those who own a house in Madeira as well as those who come here just to spend a few days, the Fish Square at the Farmers’ Market is a definite must. ‘The bustle, the way of working, the costumes’ all are elements of what gives the Fish Square its own identity. In the experience of José Gonçalves, this space remains wonderful and beautiful to its visitors: ‘they like it and they come back, they go back home and then they come back’.

For hotels and restaurants, the Fish Square remains a well-known place. Being demanding up to point, they all come seeking the freshest fish, specially to cook traditional dishes. Fish is the main star in many of the culinary wonders of Madeira, a good example being the fried tuna steak with special sauce, the black scabbard served with fried banana and passion fruit or even the skipjack tuna. When it comes to shellfish, limpets have deep roots in gastronomic tradition.

Inaugurated in November 1940, the Farmers’ Market has always been a trade hub specially for traditional products. Like many of the food markets from around the world it is representative of day-today life on the island. For those who visit Madeira, many of whom live far away from the ocean, the Fish Square represents a bit of the sea, brought to land.


Article written in 2017.