For those seeking a glimpse into the culture of Madeira, there can be no better introduction than a visit to the annual Feast of The Blessed Sacrament in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The 93rd edition of this festival took place this year from August 2nd - 5th.
The Feast of the Blessed Sacrament originated in 1915, when four Madeiran immigrants organized a mostly religious celebration in an attempt to recreate those from their home towns. Popularity grew and the feast is now billed as “The Largest Portuguese Festival in the World” and “The Largest Ethnic Festival in New England.”
There is no escaping the Portuguese influence in New Bedford as more than 55% of the local residents claim Portuguese ancestry. Immigration occurred in multiple waves. The first swell, from 1800-1870, came primarily from the Açores, typically as crewmen aboard whaling ships. After the 1850s, immigrants from Cape Verde, a former Portuguese colony off the coast of Senegal, began appearing. From 1870-1924, inhabitants from Madeira and mainland Portugal followed suit as the industrial age – particularly the New Bedford textile mills – offered attractive economic opportunities. It wasn’t until 1958 that another wave of Portuguese immigration began swelling. While evidence of all these cultures is discernible today, it is the Madeiran influence which seemed the most prevalent during my brief visit to New Bedford.
This was my second successive attendance as an adult, having attended numerous other times as a child throughout the 1970s with my family and extended family, all of whom emigrated from Madeira in the 1960s. What I now notice as an adult is what appears to be two festivals. Within the fenced-in confines of “Madeira Field” is the more traditional festival with Portuguese food, souvenirs and folk dancing. Outside is a more “generic” festival with carnival rides, games and standard “fair” food.
While the festival radiates a jovial atmosphere, the somber religious roots are still observed. The organizing committee (os festeiros) inaugurates the feast by participating in a procession towards the nearby Church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception. A special Benediction Mass is held where the organizers receive the blessing of the church and are reminded of the feast’s sacred origins.
A visitor will have much in the way of diversions: music, folk dancing, ethnic food, wine, activities for children, a parade, a museum and a 5K road race. Although my participation in the road race resulted in a disappointing 76th place out of 136 entrants, I was somewhat consoled by the fact that I was the first finisher propelling a baby jogger before me. I take my victories where I can find them.
The small but quaint Museum of Madeiran Heritage is just outside Madeira Field and presents a charming viewport into the origins of the feast and of Madeiran culture in general. Antique photographs of the early festeiros proudly grace the walls. Enchanting folk art is exhibited, such as the carvings of Arnoldo Souza who was scolded as a child for carving likenesses of people from his village from potatoes – because he “wasted good food”. There are paintings and vintage photographs from around the island, appealing samples from the wicker cottage industry, colorful folk costumes and even one of the infamous toboggans that ferry tourists down Madeira’s impossibly steep roads at terrifying speeds. I’ve heard multiple accounts of people clutching the toboggan’s wicker coach for dear life as they place their trust in the two navigators who ride outside, using only their goatskin boots with rubber soles to steer and brake.
My attention was swiftly drawn to one particular item in the museum: a bottle of Madeira from Vinhos Justino Henriques. This was no ordinary bottle of wine; it was an authentic bottle of Vinho da Volta – heated the old fashion way by sailing across the equator. From what I could make out of the Portuguese description: “The wine traveled as ballast on the tall ship ‘Sagres’, a Portuguese naval training ship. This vessel reached the East coast of the United States in 1996 before arriving in Brazil in 1997. From this lot, 870 bottles were produced”. This was quite the eye-opener as I personally had no idea Vinho da Volta was still produced so late into the 20th century.
As you leave the museum and enter Madeira Field, a steady stream of musical entertainment, both Portuguese and mainstream, is supplied across multiple performance stages. To my surprise, the headline acts are rather big-name – if somewhat nostalgic –bands. This year’s main attraction was Lou Gramm, former lead singer of the 70s rock band “Foreigner”. Last year “Blue Oyster Cult” performed… almost makes me want to dust off my platform shoes and hunt for my long-lost pet rock. Unfortunately, having a toddler in need of sleep makes it impossible for me to catch the headline acts, as they invariably seem to be scheduled rather late into the evening.
For a taste of something more intensely Portuguese, live fado performances are held in a breezy, outdoor café just outside the Museum of Madeiran Heritage. The mournful melodies and lyrics of fado can be traced as far back as the 1820s and often speak of lost love, the sea and the lives of the poor. A classic performance would consist of a lone singer with both a Portuguese twelve-string guitar and a classical guitar as accompaniment. I vividly recall my first taste of fado in a cramped café on a narrow medieval alley in the Alfama district of Lisbon. The opening mournful wail from the fadista instantly grips at your heart; even without understanding the lyrics, one is helplessly overcome by waves of emotion. When President Bill Clinton visited Portugal in 2000, he came back saying “I think fado now has become my major passion in life”. In short, definitely make time to attend one of these performances – you will not regret it.
The folk dances of Madeira are performed numerous times throughout the festival by the local Grupo Folclorico Madeirense S. S. Sacramento, accompanied by the musical instrument most emblematic of Madeira – the brinquinho. Made up of small puppets dressed in typical costume, connected to castanets and mounted on a staff, the brinquinho produces a cheerful clang with its vertical movements. Sporting their traditional folk costumes and accompanied by the ubiquitous brinquinho, the dancers expertly weave between one another, knitting a distinctive and colorful visual tapestry. The most popular of these dances is the Bailinho da Madeira (the Little Dance of Madeira), or simply, the Bailinho. No self respecting Madeiran dance troupe would dare omit its performance. Just like the rock band Lynryd Skynyrd and their iconic song “Freebird”, you know they’ll eventually perform it… usually teasing the audience by performing it last.
Overall, it’s hard to complain about the quantity and quality of the entertainment – especially when one takes into account the fact that no admission fee is ever charged.
Then there’s the food… perhaps the main reason so many people attend. Although one can purchase hot dogs, hamburgers and French fries at the various food stands (barracas), it is the aroma of Portuguese cuisine that commands your attention. A covered area is provided which affords a sit-down, restaurant-style venue where you can dine on such classic dishes as cod fish (bacalhao), goat (cabra) and tuna (atum). This covered area proved a bit too stifling for me in the 96 degree heat and I personally preferred ordering from the barracas and eating in the outdoor picnic area. Mercifully shaded by a tranquil arch of grape vines and replete with rows of long tables, this outdoor picnic area almost forces you to sit with strangers, instigate conversation and dine family-style.
So much pork, so little time. The sandwiches of linguiça (Portuguese sausage), pork butt (actually pork shoulder), caçoila (pork marinated in wine vinegar) were all delicious, but my absolute favorite was the bifanas which were seasoned with the perfect amount of peppery spice. All the sandwiches were served on rustic, chewy, slightly spongy bread which hungrily soaked up the savory drippings. The breads all came from the Açores Bakery in the nearby town of Fall River, which coincidently also boasts a sizable Portuguese community.
One of the iconic dishes of Madeira is carne de espeto – cubes of beef rubbed with an aromatic mixture of bay leaf, garlic powder, and coarse salt. The cubes are skewered on a laurel branch and cooked over an open fire. Metal skewers are substituted for the laurel branch at the festival, but other than that, the experience is pretty authentic. You can conveniently purchase sandwiches of carne de espeto for $4 – trust me, that’s a lot of meat for the money – or buy the raw meat there, rub it at one of the provided salt stations, lay down a refundable deposit for a skewer and confront the open flames yourself.
The traditional use of a laurel branch skewer recalls an interesting anecdote regarding the early history of Madeira. The island was originally blanketed by dense laurel forests (laurisilva) before being burned down by the early settlers; legend tells of the fires burning for years. It was this profusion of trees that gave the island its name – the word for “wood” in Portuguese is madeira. The few remaining laurisilvas are today designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
If all that meat hasn’t completely stuffed you, fill in the cracks with a malasada – a fistful of deep fried dough liberally sprinkled with sugar. Our 30 minute wait in line to buy a freshly fried malasada is a testament to the addictive nature of this warm, sweet and chewy Portuguese indulgence.
If you have the time, don’t be shy about venturing beyond Madeira Field and exploring the surrounding neighborhood. While seeking a bit of quiet time, we ventured a mere two blocks to Acushnet Ave, which appeared to be the vicinity’s main business district. We stumbled upon the air-conditioned Lydia’s Bakery on 1666 Acushnet Ave, adorned with decorative tiles and brimming with Portuguese breads and pastries. We must have spent a good two hours at a window-side table enjoying our coffee, snacking, people watching and catching our wind before returning to the festival for the Madeira wine.
The festival has special arrangements with the government of Madeira which allows them to directly import the wines in barrel – the only event, from what I could gather, where this is allowed. The barrels are primarily housed and served from the “Santana House”, a hut in the middle of Madeira Field constructed to resemble the distinctive straw-roofed bungalows of Santana, a village on Madeira’s Northern coast. Served with a good chill, the wine is soft, sweet and satisfying, with a strong caramel-nut finish. Although I don’t normally drink Madeira this cold, it was absolutely refreshing in the scorching mid-day heat. Is it “great” Madeira? Well, no… but context is important. The festival attracts approximately 300,000 people; they go through a lot of barrels; they do this every year; they charge $3 for a 3 oz cup and $6 for a 7 oz cup. There is just no practical or affordable way to serve rare, world class Madeira at this sort of event – and still have any special bottles left on the face of the earth. Consider this good, basic, honest Madeira.
In closing, if you come for a wine experience alone, I fear disappointment awaits you. While the Madeira is tasty – albeit a bit simple – the red, white and rosé table wines are basic jug wines and the only beer available is Budweiser. The Feast of The Blessed Sacrament is not about wine connoisseurship, it is about the people, culture, pride, community and general way of life of the people of Madeira.
As I mentioned in my opening paragraph, if a glimpse into Madeiran culture is what you seek, a visit to this annual festival is a wonderful introduction. Perhaps the best endorsement I can offer is that I absolutely intend to endure another lengthy drive to attend next year’s edition. With my son being a year older, perhaps I can extend our family’s participation a bit further into the evening. Now if I can just find that pet rock…
- Marco deFreitas