I was always told that the secret to enjoying wine was to keep drinking it.
“If you don’t like it,” said my father, “just continue trying it until you do.”
This makes him sound like a religious alcoholic, which he is not. In fact, it turns out that his advice is applicable to many things in life, especially when it comes to immersing yourself in a new language. I call the process cultural “marination” and having just returned from a marketing and wine internship on the island of Madeira, I can safely say I know how to put this into practice. After 3 months of sampling the local culture and gastronomy, I am now not only a raving Madeira wine fan but also, I hope, a little more fluent in Portuguese.
So here is a flavour of what full “marination” in Madeiran culture involves:
The island is famous for its fortified wines, whose rare taste and longevity (you can keep a bottle open for a year without the wine going off) come from the unique heating and traditional ageing process which they go through. Vineyards of Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, Malmsey and Tinta Negra grapes tumble and cascade over Madeira’s rugged peaks and the wines made from these are served as often to tourists in restaurants as they are in locals’ homes. As with language learning, the secret is to keep on trying in order to fully understand deeper levels of taste and complexity. Working at a wine lodge meant I was tasting regularly and practically swimming in Madeira, although I didn’t go as far as the 1st Duke of Clarence. An ardent love of Malmsey and enforced death sentence by his older brother led him to choose to be drowned in a vat of the stuff, according to Shakespeare’s Henry VI. There’s always one who takes things a step too far.
This is a local drink made from Aguardente (sugar cane rum with an alcohol content of roughly 50%), fresh lemon, orange or other fruit juice and honey. The combination is mixed with a long wooden stick called a “Caralhinho” (local slang, not for office use) and just four shots is enough to make you suffer horrendously the next day.
Madeira is Cristiano Ronaldo mad. He has his own museum, hotel and now airport. I was lucky enough to be on one of the first flights departing from the newly opened “Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport” on the 29th March. The inauguration day was a crammed confusion of important national figures, TV journalists and school children screaming at his horrifying new bust.
Bananas and Odd Exotic Fruit
Madeiran farmers claim their bananas are smaller than continental ones, but tastier. If that doesn’t do it for you then the extraordinary range of weird fruit just might. Even if you are widely travelled, Madeira will show you fruit you never knew existed: alien-green pipinelas, scaley but mushy custard apples, something known as an “english tomato” which has most certainly never caught a glimpse of British soil in its life, as well as a sort of ridged cherry called pitanga and over seven different types of passionfruit. Whatever your taste you’ll find something that takes your fancy.
The Madeiran word for a coffee with milk is garoto, which means boy. I’ve been told it’s not appropriate to use this when ordering at a café on mainland Portugal.
It’s an absolute essential to try the local delicacies if you want to fully immerse in Madeirenese culture. Eat Espada (sword fish) with banana (local dish, surprisingly edible), Espetada (meat kebab), or Lapas (limpets) if you feel adventurous. Honestly more appetising than they sound.
One of the best ways to understand a foreign culture is to get their sense of humour, so listening to local comedians is a must! Check out the Portuguese Ricardo Arujo Pereira, debating live on radio the best way to eat cereal and the optimum temperature of milk:
Or the very Madeiran 4 Litros, a comedy group which satirise the island’s culture through youtube. In reaction to Donald Trump’s “America First” speech, they produced a parody video “America First, Madeira Second”:
A lot of the above may not exactly be your cup of tea, but the key to cultural immersion, much like wine tasting, is to keep drinking it in. Just as wine improves with age, so too do language skills with time. Alternatively, just try speaking Portuguese after drinking a bottle of Madeira, the results are astounding.
Published on Immerse app blog, April 2017.