It’s a good idea to arrive either early or late as they don’t take bookings
“I came to the village of Prazeres for lunch and got more than I bargained for... which is a good thing as far as lunch is concerned...” — David J Whyte
THIS PLACE GETS BUSY
As we pulled into the car park just after midday, the workers of the area had already arrived; painters, plasters and smart-dressed salespeople. Then there were the mountain bikers and jeep safari folk. Why is this modest little restaurant in the even more modest hamlet of Prazeres so popular? Because, as far as a lunchtime menu is concerned, Casa Bettencourt is surely one of the ‘best in the west’. FAMILY AFFAIR This is a family-run restaurant about 45-minutes west of the centre of Funchal and not far from the beach town of Calheta so it’s handy if you’re exploring this side of the island. Having been here a fair few times now, we tend to make lunch a meal our main objective then build the rest of the day around that! The only problem with that plan is a siesta is probably the best option after eating here.
Simple but satisfying fair…
With a long-standing reputation for tasty local dishes combined with certain ‘imported’ influences, Casa Bettencourt hasn’t failed us yet. And the price is most appealing too; a generous plateful including wine and coffee coming in at a mere €10. Weekend rates go up to an astounding €12.50. Little wonder this place is so popular!
Coat of arms of the Bettencourt family.
Once the lunchtime whirlwind had subsided, I got the chance to take a coffee with one of the restaurant’s two owners, Luis Bettencourt. Firstly, I was intrigued by the name, ‘Bettencourt’, definitely not Madeiran. “Our family name originated in Normandy,” Luis informed me which I figured was a fairly safe bet. My own maternal patronymic, ‘Bovill’ stems from the town of Beuzeville, also in Normandy. There is, by way of a sidetrack, a lot of Scottish connections to Brittany and Normandy including the Scottish Stewart line (Jacobites) who, I was fascinated to learn on a holiday some decades ago, came from the town of Dol-de-Bretagne in Brittany. But that’s a completely different story!
“About five or six generations ago,” Luis went on,“ the family migrated from France first to the Azores then the Canary Islands and then, finally here to Madeira. Our father was an airforce pilot during Portugal’s period of colonial unrest.” The Portuguese Colonial Wars lasted for nearly 13 years as the last of the old ‘Império Português’ crumbled. In part, this led to the disposition by a peaceful military coup of the long-standing ultra-conservative, Portuguese dictatorship.
In 1974, seeking a better life, the Bettencourts emigrated to South Africa to join the extensive Portuguese community there. By 1988, due to the aggression in that country, the family was on the move again, coming back to Portugal, this time to the Algarve to open a restaurant overlooking the marina in the tourist town of Vilamoura. ‘Restaurant Madeira’ did really well,” Luis went on, “and lasted well into the 90s but Vilamoura Marina became over-saturated with restaurants,” he told me. “It’s a very seasonal business on the Algarve! During the summer months, there could be as many as 300 to 500 customers a night. In the winter, hardly any!” In 1994, the family decided to come back to Madeira and their home village of Prazeres where they owned some land to open a restaurant. It went well, so much so that in 2013 they decided they needed a bigger place and moved to where Casa Bettencourt Restaurante now stands. The sad end to this part of the tale is that both parents got sick and died within 6 months of one another not long after they had moved into the new premises.
As a homage to their parents, the young brothers Bettencourt kept the family restaurant going, doing exactly what their parents had been, maintaining a passion for homemade food with some South African influences along with regional flavours from the Algarve, Lisbon, Alentejo and even desserts from the Azores.
At lunchtime, there are usually 4 or 5 different dishes to choose from; meat, fish, chicken curry, that sort of thing and not quite ‘your usual’. It seems the brothers are not scared to try something different! You can’t beat it for homemade food at a great price, good quality and great big portions. The house red is a Shiraz, a sweeter, French-based grape grown in Alentejo. It’s a blend but the quality is even better, I reckon!
I asked about their typical clientele. Besides all the local workers, there is a lot of German and French tourists in this area who love nature and the Madeiran countryside. They also love the food. Nearby Calheta is warm and sunny, especially through the winter months. I asked Luis more about the food. “We try to buy everything Portuguese,” he told me. “We get our beef mainly from the Azores. We’re passionate about our beef. You need to open the vacuum and let it breathe for ‘the more the merrier’. We’re not a steak house but we like to serve mature or aged beef like ‘Tomahawk Steaks’. “All the vegetables are delivered from local growers. There’s a market that is open on Sunday from 8am to 1pm and you have very good quality products. That’s halfway to success!”
The weekend menu is slightly different with less common dishes like Cejudo Portuguese or Feijoada, a pork and bean dish. In the evening you can try grilled octopus, codfish or black pork. Other favourites are Custoleta steak (sirloin) on the spit (espetada) on the platter or the bone. It’s always good to order these dishes 24 hours in advance especially if if there’s a group of 4 or more…
David J. Whyte