Portugal and England have a very old history together. Both nations have periodically ruled vast chunks of the world via naval prowess and trade. Officially, the alliance was created in 1373 by treaty but it actually dates back to the middle of the 12th century, when English crusaders assisted with the Reconquista. In fact, Gilbert of Hastings was rewarded for his efforts by being made bishop of Lisbon, something one would struggle to imagine nowadays. The closeness between the nations had been increased by trade–since the beginning of the 18th century, when politics and conflicts prevented the import of French wines and brandies, the English have enthusiastically consumed the fortified wines of the Douro.
Given this closeness, it is a little odd that we have relatively few Portuguese restaurants in the UK. Obviously London has a few, mostly round the Stockwell and Brixton border, and there’s a fair number of Madeiran cafes where one may enjoy uma bica (like an espresso but not. Remember that there is an awful lot of coffee in Brazil, that Brazil used to be a colony of Portugal and so the Portuguese do tend to get the best beans) and a couple of pasteis de nata, the traditional intensely sweet and rich custard tart, but the main part of Portuguese cuisine is under-represented.
Except in Tunbridge Wells, where we have Madeira at the far end of Camden Road, past the mosque and most of the way to Orpington. I am guilty of not having visited here until recently, out of a sadness at the demise of the previous occupant, the excellent Preedee who served what was at the time the best Thai in the area, but lost out because we were all too lazy to travel that extra few yards out of the town centre. However, having told myself to stop being petulant, I ventured incognito, in for lunch.
The interior is little changed, a homely family style place with basic and comfortable furnishings (like we need anything else?) Its national allegiance is made clear by the photographs of people and food and by the ornaments, especially the multiple representations of Barcelo’s cock. (Barcelo was a chap from Portugal who was famous for his cockerel, which had saved his life, and it has become a ubiquitous symbol of good fortune to the extent that most Portuguese businesses have at least one graven image of Barcelo’s cock – that’s why horrid (ie not free range chicken and the chips are rubbish) Nandos has paintings and models of black roosters everywhere as they too have a Portuguese influence via Angola.
There is some fado music playing softly, which is appropriate and actually rather pleasant, bringing back memories of good nights in the Alfama in Lisbon. The welcome is genuine and friendly and yet again, I must say that this is why little independents are better than chains, because all the people involved really care and are wholly committed. It is a refreshingly short menu, suggesting fresh not frozen, and although pretty much useless for vegetarians (who are nearly extinct on the Iberian peninsula anyway) there is an even split between flesh and fish.
On being seated and ordering a half-litre jug of house red (only £7.50, a Capataz red that is technically a mere table wine, but in glass is fragrant and fruity, and very drinkable with plum and sour cherry on the palate), I am given a small plate of fried potato skins – as the restaurant makes its own chips from scratch, the skins are washed and fried and served with sea salt – which are crisp and deliciously potatoey.
As a fat man, I pick two starters; pasteis de bacalhau, salt cod fritters; hot and crisp with a melting interior, a gentle cod flavour and a hint of onion, these are as good as you’ll find anywhere, and come with the usual mesclun salad and some quality black olives. But the outstanding charcuterie puts them in the shade: we all know about Italian prosciutto, Spanish jamon, French charcuterie and so forth, but one of the best kept secrets of the western world is how astoundingly good Portuguese cured meats can be. There is ham as good as any jabugo Iberico, rich and meaty salted air-dried loin, subtle chourico that is less dominated by paprika than its Spanish cousin, and a truly memorable salami, dark, deep pork and rich fat, fully aged dark slices made from a really happy animal that has eaten incredibly well. The home-made pickled carrot and cauliflower garnishes are superb, although the garlic croutes, like Angel di Maria, could be dropped without impact. These are meats of the highest standard, which have never been plastic-wrapped and cool-chained. I could eat this every day and never get bored.
Although there is frango a piri-piri, the chilli-spiked chargrilled chicken I love so much when made with non-industrial birds, and also porco a alentejano, the curious surf and turf collision of pork and clams which is a Portuguese mainstay, the restaurant’s speciality is meat espetada, barbecued on a skewer. I ask for lamb, but you can also have chicken or sirloin of beef. The meat is a generous portion, basted with garlic, olive oil and fresh rosemary: the gimmick is that it is served on a wrought iron hook with the skewer hanging down so you fork off chunks as you want them. It’s pretty and harmless and it does mean you can stick your carbohydrate side dish under it to catch the juices. Now the home-made chips are tempting, but the other option is fried maize, and I don’t really like maize/corn in other cuisines as it is too powerful a flavour, but I’d be a poorer critic not to try something unknown. Boy was I pleased: a very pale cornmeal boiled up into a polenta-like mush, cooled, cubed and flash deep-fried- one of the nicest things yet invented. The paler than usual corn has a delicate taste and the textural contrast between soft inside and crunchy outer works and it soaks up the lamb juices just right.
I asked for the lamb to be cooked slightly pink, which it is but with a good char and very tender and every inch edible. There’s a decent salad with oil and vinegar provided and a happy, full diner. Simple, deft cooking of good ingredients at a very good price point.
Too full for dessert, but just enough room for one of those fabulous small smooth coffees, and a shot of aguardente–to my huge joy, they stock the Branca brand from Madeira, which is an unaged sugar cane rum, and in the premium 50 per cent proof version. I thought it must be my birthday. I’m glad I bothered, Madeira is a lovely restaurant, staffed by some smashing people, and is terrific value. I’ve booked for next week.
Wine from £3 a glass
Starters from £3.50
Mains from £10
Desserts from £5
155-157 Camden Road, Tunbridge Wells TN1 2RF
01892 544144 | restaurantmadeira.co.uk