Viva Varun: In Madeira!

Answer to “Where am I?” : I am on the volcanic island of Madeira.

Congratulations to everyone who answered correctly on the blog, Facebook and Twitter: Ray, Matthijs, Michael, Mark, Jonathan, Gopi and Kevin.

The Black Scabbardfish or Espada Preta is the favoured fish dish in Madeira, which is the largest island in an archipelago. It is 801 square kilometers in area and is located around 500 kilometers west of North Africa in the Atlantic Ocean.

Although part of Portugal, the island – whose name translates as “wood” – enjoys both political and administrative autonomy.

The capital of the “Pearl of the Atlantic” is Funchal.

The island was rediscovered in the early 15th century by Portuguese sailors and is famous for producing Madeira Wine and poncha – one of the most potent rum-based cocktails I have ever tasted!

The Black Scabbardfish is arguably the ugliest and scariest fish in the world. I have yet to see one that is so repulsive and I hope I never will. It is only found in the Atlantic Ocean between the latitudes of 69 degrees and 27 degrees north and at a depth of between 180 and 1700 meters. Very little is known about its lifestyle as it is found in such deep water.

An adult reaches about one meter in length and if you are wondering about the huge eyes, well, actually their eyes are much smaller but expand & often burst as the pressure changes when they are brought to the surface of the ocean.

Madeirans eat Scabbardfish roe and liver as a delicacy but the meat is also mild and tasty.

I am an oenophile in every sense of the word. I love learning about the process of producing wine, I visit wineries all over the world, I adore wine tastings and of course I love drinking it, sometimes, admittedly, in excess.

Slowly but surely, I am getting to grips with the taste differences between Syrah & Shiraz and Cabernets & Chardonnay.

Occasionally I get the chance to try a left-of-center wine and Madeira Wine is one such.

Table wines were produced from the 1450s by the monks who lived on the island. Due to the high acidity of the volcanic soil, the shelf-life was quite short. Madeira was on the Spice Route to India and China so ships which stopped there would pick up barrels of this fairly miserable wine and sailors would consume it swiftly before it became vinegar.

By chance in the 18th century, a barrel of wine was mistakenly mixed with rum-alcohol and embarked on a return journey to India. As you can imagine, the wine went through several temperature changes, but on its return to the island was found to be rather tasty and so this fortified product – Madeira Wine – was born.

Its popularity has hit troughs and peaks over the centuries, but is now widely enjoyed as either an aperitif or after-supper treat.

There are four main types of Madeira wine ranging from driest to sweetest and according to grape variety. Sercial is very dry and is high in acidity, Verdelho is smoky and is medium/dry in taste, Bual/Boal is medium/sweet and exhibits hints of raisin, and finally, Malvasia/Malmsey, which is dark in color, noses coffee and is a sweet as honey … definitely my favorite.

The addition of grape spirit means that Madeiran wines have a long shelf-life. While on the island, I sampled Reserves (five years), Extra Reserves (15 years) and Vintage, which is over 20 years old. In fact, I drank wines that dated back to 1920, which by the way, were … sensational!

-Varun Sharma

Varun Sharma is the host of Inside Luxury Travel – a television show that focuses on high-end travel. The show airs in over 160 countries, in 21 languages and is beamed into 600 million homes worldwide. He has now stayed in nearly 700 luxury hotels & resorts … and has in the past couple of  years has flown in a fighter jet, gone diving – without a cage – in Tiger Shark infested-waters, had dinner with a dingo and has cooked with over 75 Michelin-starred chefs! He likes nothing better than playing a round of golf with his pooch Gemima by his side, cigar in mouth and flask of single malt Scottish whisky to hand!