When you arrive in Madeira it is impossible to miss all the banana trees ! You will find them all over the island, but the vast majority of the Madeira banana plantations are located on the south coast, because it is the sunniest part of the island. The banana trees like the oceanic subtropical and temperate climate with a low thermal amplitude.
A banana tree, or a banana plant ?
Did you know that the banana tree is not, technically speaking, a tree ? It is a plant because it does not have a trunk, but instead, a succession of leaves linked together that form a huge stem. The flower of the banana tree is located at the base of the bunch, and it forms a huge purple or pink bud and small yellow flowers grow all around. When the banana bunch is formed, the flower is cut to allow the fruit to grow.
Bananas were introduced on Madeira Island in the 16th century. On this steep mountainous island, bananas are grown on terraced plots and irrigated by "levadas" (small canals that bring water from the peaks to the crops below). Bananas are cultivated up to an altitude of approximately 300m.
The cultivation of bananas is very difficult. It takes about 12 months to harvest the fruit, so only once a year. It is very important that the banana tree is protected and supported so that the branch that carries the fruit does not break. You will notice in the banana plantation in Madeira that the fruit is supported by iron or wooden bars so that the branches do not give way under the weight of the bunches, also known as a cluster. Did you know that the average weight of a cluster of bananas is around 50 kg ? Some clusters can weigh up to 90kg ! Quite remarkable when you consider the fact that the clusters are carried by man, from the tree to the truck, on terraced fields that are not easily accessible. There is no machine to replace man on the island ! On some farms there are zip line systems in place to help farmers lower the banana bunches.
The Madeira banana and its many uses
Bananas are picked for exportation when still green in colour. The Madeira banana is only exported to Portugal. Because of its small size, it does not correspond to the European criteria, and therefore cannot be exported to other European countries... Which is a real shame because it is very tasty!
Madeira bananas are used in making local desserts and main dishes such as the banana Espada, a fish accompanied with banana. It may seem unusual, but it is excellent ! Bananas are a food with many health benefits and before the arrival of drugs, the banana leaf was used to treat certain ailments, such as improving digestion and relieving heartburn. Due to a high potassium content, bananas can protect against cramp and help lower blood pressure.
A local food thrown into the spotlight !
In Ponta do Sol, a new museum has just opened; the "BAM", which has for theme the banana! Pay a visit and learn more about the history, culture, nutritional benefits and impact on the local economy ; you may not know it, but the Madeira banana is more important to the economy than the Madeira wine ! At the end of the visit, you can sample a banana cake and enjoy a surprising drink : banana beer ! Are you tempted ?
In Madalena do Mar, there is a path called "Rota da Banana" which is a loop walk of about 30 minutes through the banana plantations. It is in this small town that the largest banana plantation of the island is located. In July, there is a banana festival « Mostra Regional da Banana » to celebrate the food that is such an important and integral part of the island.
Now that you know a little more about the Madeira banana, we hope it will make you want to go to Madeira and taste this local fruit directly on the spot !