You cannot visit Madeira without tasting the ubiquitous Madeiran recipe: bolo do caco!
It is called “the Pearl of the Atlantic” or, quite rightly, “the Floating Garden”. The island of Madeira, an autonomous region of Portugal, is a tropical archipelago with a wonderful subtropical climate and breathtaking views. It is located in the North Atlantic Ocean, about 600 miles from Portugal and about 400 miles from the Moroccan coast, an outpost of Europe in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Bolo do caco is a typical Madeiran bread, made from flour, sweet potatoes, yeast, water and salt. It has a circular and flat shape. It has a hard but thin crust and a soft, airy crumb, as a result of its baking directly on a hot surface, and a slightly sweet flavor and aroma derived from the sweet potato.
The origin of the Madeiran bolo do caco is very distant and it seems to be the result of the Arab influence in the Madeiran society, which dates back to the 15th century. This influence is directly related to the cultivation of sugarcane and the first phase of implantation of vineyards, when the first Guanches, Moroccan and African slaves, arrived on the island, and contributed to the economic development of the archipelago.
The addition of sweet potatoes is the result of the cyclical lack of cereals on the island of Madeira, which gave the idea to bakers to compensate this shortage with the addition of the pulp of a tuber root. This unique product is the direct result of their ingenuity!
In the pure tradition of Madeira, the bolo do caco is baked on a basalt stone heated at high temperature, directly on hot embers. This stone is called caco, hence the name of this bread. Today, many use concrete slabs that can replace basalt stones.
Even if tradition has it that the bolo do caco is baked over a wood fire on this famous slab of basalt stone, today, and thanks to technology, cast iron plates or non-stick heavy-bottom pans often replace the original slab.
The inhabitants of the island of Porto Santo, a small island in the Portuguese archipelago of Madeira, that is famous for its warm waters and breathtaking landscapes, claim that the bolo do caco was born on their island and not in Madeira. The ingredients of the Porto Santo recipe are exactly the same except that Porto Santo bakers let the dough rise three times rather than twice.
Sweet potato is perhaps one of the most used ingredients in Madeiran cuisine.
In an article published in 1909, Madeiran botanist Carlos Azevedo de Menezes said that sweet potatoes were introduced to Madeira in the middle of the 17th century. However, there is every reason to believe that its cultivation started earlier, since, more recently, Mendes Ferrão, a scholar of tropical plants, stated that its culture already existed in the Azores in 1538 and that in the second half of the 16th century, sweet potatoes, unlike ordinary potatoes, were already prevalent in Portugal, Spain and Italy.
The Maderians are therefore very fond of this sweet and tasty root that can be consumed boiled, roasted or baked, and that is also used for confectionery.
The region has a large number of sweet potato varieties. In fact, researchers counted more than 28 varieties of sweet potatoes on the island. Some are very old and others have been introduced relatively recently, brought from Venezuela and South Africa by immigrants.
Sweet potatoes are a high-energy food, with tuberous roots typically containing between 25% and 30% carbohydrates, and about 100 to 120 calories per 100 grams. These roots also have high vitamin content, especially provitamin A and vitamin C, and minerals (potassium, iron and calcium), but they are low in protein.
What is the difference between potatoes and sweet potatoes?
They may share the same name but potatoes and sweet potatoes are not from the same family and they have nothing to do with each other. The word potato comes from the Spanish batata, itself borrowed from the language of the Native American people Arawak.
I prepared these rolls with the help of my three adorable nephews, Ava, Méni and Ohèv. Absolute happiness after a day of school! Everyone put their heart to work. We devoured them hot and in the pure Madeiran tradition: with garlic and parsley salted butter. It was just divine!
- 1¾ lb sweet potato
- 8 cups all-purpose flour
- ⅔ cup water (warm at 75 F)
- 3 tablespoons active dry yeast
- 3 teaspoons salt
Peel the sweet potatoes. Cut into large pieces and place in a saucepan.
Cover with water, bring to a boil and cook covered for 20 minutes over medium-high heat.
Drain the sweet potatoes and mash them. Add salt.
Mix the yeast and water and let stand for 10 minutes.
Pour the flour into a large salad bowl.
Dig a well in the center and add the mashed sweet potato and yeast.
Knead to obtain a homogeneous and elastic dough.
Let the dough ferment for 3 days in the refrigerator.
After 3 days, divide the dough into 8 to 10 pieces of equal weight on a work surface dusted with flour.
Form balls and flatten them to a thickness of about 1 inch.
Let them rest for 30 minutes in a warm place, protected from drafts.
Heat a dry pan over medium-high heat and cook the bolos do caco on both sides until a thin and slightly hard crust is formed. Turn them over very regularly.
Then take each bolo do caco with tongs and turn them around on the hot pan to bake the sides.
Serve warm or lukewarm with salted butter and parsley.