Sugar, Honey & RumSugar, Honey, Rum. The Island became a major producer and supplier of what was historically known as the ‘white gold’.
These lands were very difficult to cultivate and slaves were brought in from Africa to work in the sugar cane farms and mills. By this time sugar was considered a luxury and as plantations expanded this industry became very important to the local economy.
Madeira Sugar was known all over Europe and attracted many traders and merchants who settled in Funchal and its surroundings, spreading as far as Ponta do Sol, Calheta, Ribeira Brava; all areas becoming big producers of sugar cane. Funchal port being a busy sugar trading centre was frequently visited by merchants who would trade various products such as tools, cloth, clay, iron, meat, salt and olive oil all in exchange for sugar. Another very important trade was with Flanders; sugar was traded for unique works of art like the Sé Cathedral Altar Painting and the artistic wooden ceiling, the Flemish collection is still found today at the sacred art museum.
In the year 1500 Madeira Island was the largest sugar exporter in the world but by the end of the century the sugarcane production fell due to over-production and a cane disease that decimated the fields.
Today three sugar cane processing factories still exist and in early April their machines are put to work processing the raw constituents of honey (cane syrup) molasses and rum. You may visit these factories and see their processes at Ribeiro Sêco in Funchal, Calheta and Porto da Cruz.
Besides sugar, molasses and firewater, ‘aguardente’ is also produced from the cane. This ‘cane brandy’ also features in ‘Poncha’, Madeira’s traditional white-rum lemon juice and Bee´s honey drink. Honey on the other hand is one of the main basic ingredients in the traditional cake ‘Bolo de Mel’. Known world wide it’s made of sugar cane honey, wheat flour, vegetable fat, sugar, allspice and dried fruit. According to custom the honey cake is broken by hand and never with a knife. Delicious cookies are also made with sugar cane honey.