There are many misconceptions about Madeira cake. The first is that it originates from the Portuguese island of Madeira, and the second is that it contains Madeira wine. Neither of these statements are true. In fact, Madeira cake is very British, although it does have a strong connection to both Madeira and its wine. While it’s unclear exactly how long it’s been around for, one of its earliest known recipes was published in an English cookery book back in 1845.
This is where things get slightly confusing. Because the famous fortified Portuguese wine made in the Madeira Islands is also called Madeira. Its popularity in Europe dates as far back as the 16th century and there’s a very longstanding rumour suggesting Richard III’s brother, the Duke of Clarence, was drowned in a vat of Malmsey – Madeira’s sweetest wine – at the Tower of London in 1478. By the time the 19th century rolled around, the upper classes had got into the habit of sipping Madeira wine with a certain crumbly cake that complemented it perfectly. Because, well, why not? Having a slice with a glass of Madeiran wine became such common practice that everyone began to associate it with the wine and eventually named the cake after it.
The taste of Madeiran wine is pretty unique, and its flavour is brought about by heating the wine. Believe it or not, this process was developed completely by accident during the 1600s and is partly down to the island’s location. Although Madeira belongs to Portugal, it’s actually closer to Morocco, which made it a perfectly positioned port of call for US ships travelling to Asia or the Americas. Those that stopped over would usually be loaded with wine before continuing onwards. The wine would then be gently exposed to high temperatures during the rest of the journey and captains soon began to notice that this made it taste better. Nowadays the island’s wines are matured in warehouses, where they are stored in barrels and heated softly by the Madeira sun, which rises to temperatures of around 24°c between May and September.
Madeira has its own traditional cake, known as Bolo de Mel, but it couldn’t be more different to the Madeira cake we know. The popular confection is dark in colour and has the texture of a soft cookie. Considered to be Madeira's oldest dessert, it’s usually made with molasses or honey. Although it tends to be baked at Christmas, Bolo de Mel can be found in the island all year round and is very popular with locals.
150g unsalted butter, softened
150g golden caster sugar
Zest of half a lemon
3 medium eggs, beaten
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
150g self-raising flour
25g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
Candied orange peel and icing sugar to decorate
Directions: Preheat oven to 180ºc. Butter and line a 9 X 5 X 3 inch loaf tin if you don’t have any loaf cases. In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until fluffy and creamy, and mix in the lemon zest. On a low whisk speed, gradually add in the egg. Sift in the flour and baking powder and fold together. Add the vanilla and milk and gently fold together until all of the ingredients are combined. Spoon straight into the cake tin or paper case and bake for 30-35 minutes until golden and springy to touch. Leave to cool on a wired cooling rack. To decorate, top with candied orange peel and a sprinkling of icing sugar.
Food Styling: Charlotte Hay, The Creative Larder
Photography: Chris Waud, Go!Photo
Take a look at our holiday deals to Madeira and learn all about Madeira’s Cristiano Ronaldo-themed hotel, the Pestana CR7 Funchal.
Author: Tamara Hardingham-Gill
in Funchal sits on a hillside and has stunning views of the lido area. It’s also just 200 metres from the city’s bars, shops and restaurants.
Hotel Madeira is one of the few hotels in the centre of the city and is right next to the Municipal Gardens.
Situated in the town of Canico on Madeira’s southern coast, the lavish Hotel Riu Palace Madeira has two outdoor pools, a pool bar and a spa.
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