Happy new year—whatever that means! Like many of you, I'm wary of expecting too much from this year and trying to shield myself from inevitable disappointment. But more on that later. Let's talk about rum.
The last two weeks of 2021 filled my heart in ways I desperately craved. We spent nearly two weeks in Portugal—Madeira and Lisbon—amongst a few new friends and a ton of newer friends, and it was glorious. The hardest part about moving for me continues to be finding community. Community is place. It is home. But when you're in your thirties and a Pantene Pro-V is still muddying up plans, how are you supposed to find anyone?
Enter Madeira: Land of ponchas, hot dogs, mountains, and first gear
We spent a week in Madeira, an autonomous region of Portugal that's actually 2x closer to Africa than mainland Europe. Borne from ancient volcanic action like all islands, it's a lush, mountainous place with ambient weather year-round interspersed with sporadic rain to remind us not to take the outdoors for granted. We stretched our legs above the clouds, basked in afternoon sun, and got our minuscule Fiat stuck in a gutter—it's a cute car that can somehow climb the steepest roads (albeit it in very loud, groaning first gear) but couldn't reverse us out of the embarrassment of calling a tow truck on Christmas day.
Most of all, we breathed a sigh of relief—somehow, we'd made it through 2021.
Naturally, food is important when I travel, and I absorbed what Madeira had to offer. There were bolo de mel—dense with walnuts, moist and pleasantly sticky from molasses, and comforting with cinnamon; hot dogs, or cachorros quentes, with heavy condiments like guacamole and barbecue sauce; glistening cuts of meat from livestock nourished by volcanic soil; and ponchas—local rum cut with local, crystalline sugar cut with local suco de maracujá, or passion fruit juice.
It's not often you drink something where every component is local. The UK is also an island and 300x larger than Madeira, but it imports 84% of its fruit, 94% of its sugar, and nearly all its rum from African, Caribbean and Pacific ( ACP ) countries. So while ponchas and its base spirit—rum—were everywhere and bore no status symbol in Madeira, drinking them felt special, like these truly belonged to the island and its people.
Nowhere was this more clear than at Pukiki Tiki Bar: "Madeira's first and only tiki bar, celebrating the historical link between Madeira and Hawaii." Located on a sleepy stretch of the northwestern coastline and discovered via a cursory search on Google Maps, this bar was filled with more history than I'd ever imagined.
"'Pukiki' means 'Portuguese' in Hawaiian," said owner Carla Lopez. She'd heard our American accents and rushed over, eager to ask us about the tiki bars of California (awesome), our perceptions of Hawaii (beautiful), and what the hell we're doing in Madeira (drinking, clearly). Her voice brimmed with passion and deep knowledge of rum and I was transported to the past, suddenly connecting these islands' histories and wondering why I never knew this before. As we sat with our cocktails, she told us everything.
A brief history of sugar and rum, from Madeira to Hawaii and back again
In the 1870s, disease ravaged the Madeiran wine crop, so many were out of work and worse, out of money. With the rising demand of sugar and a strong knowledge of how to manage the crops, thousands of Madeirans boarded whaling ships set sail for Hawaii and began working in their sugarcane fields. Sugarcane produces a variety of byproducts, like molasses and cane juice, which are then distilled into our favorite tiki spirit—rum.
By definition, rum must be made from any sugar or sugar byproduct, allowing it to become a prevalent spirit in regions where sugarcane was grown. Of course, sugarcane was often cared for by enslaved people from Africa and the Caribbean, giving rum a more fraught history than perhaps other spirits have.
Today, Portuguese culture is all over Hawaii, from malasadas to the ukelele, which was invented in Madeira. Lopez wanted to bring some of Hawaii to Madeira in return. As she learned more about tiki bars and tiki culture, she knew the best way to do this was to open one of her own literally beneath her home, as she lives above the bar! With whimsical and delicious drinks mixed with her radiance, Pukiki is a special reminder that sometimes, happiness is simply a strong rum cocktail.
Why do we travel? The reasons change with the seasons and our own evolutions. We'd traveled to Madeira in search of sun and respite from a chaotic year, but also connection—to each other and to this hunk of European land mass we've chosen to call home. In this small and colorful tiki bar, I felt even more reassured that we are all connected by shared histories and stories, even if we don't know what they are yet.
Malted Chocolate Ginger Rum Ganache Tart
I don't often use spirits in my desserts and after this trip, I'm like why the hell not?! This is a rich, luscious tart, layered with spicy ginger, nutty spelt in the tart crust, even more nutty cashew praliné, and smooth, bitter rum to cut the chocolate's sweetness. And yes, I stenciled an emoji on top because again, why the hell not?! Subscribe to get the recipe to your inbox!