If you haven’t visited the Mercado da Ribeira in Lisbon, you must! What is so special about this particular market? Well, everything!
Besides all the fresh produce, gourmet food and nice shopping involved, there is something else I love about this and other markets. The possibility of getting to know a bit more about the people who are behind those food stalls. When you live in a city, you are usually in a hurry, time is precious and there are a million things that need to be done. I’m guilty of that and I feel I’m always on the move. The exception is the visit to my local market on the weekend. I love to explore and find out what is on offer and there I slow down, I observe, listen and decide who to buy from and what looks good. I often wish my German was better but I will get there little by little.
In my country it is different, no language barriers. There have always been markets where the Mercado da Ribeira now stands at least as far back as the 17th century. At that time it was mostly a fish market due to the close proximity of the river Tagus. And the Tagus is indeed just a few meters away.
But the Ribeira market as we know it was first inaugurated in January 1882. Since then there has been a fire which destroyed part of it and several reconstructions and renovations done. It was always the main market in Lisbon, known for the lively atmosphere and the best produce. Then some years back it lost its spirit, lost customers and eventually faded a bit into oblivion until the Magazine Time Out took over.
The space was renovated and new concepts were introduced. The food and produce stalls got a fresh face and the market came back to live.
Sometimes not living in Portugal makes me forget about certain details that could be important such as the reason for all the fish stalls being covered, it being Monday, day off for the fish mongers.
In this case I ended up not minding as it brought me to meet someone special. I was searching for the wonderful fish varieties we have the luck of enjoying in Portugal when I heard a voice from one of the stands saying she hoped I could help her start the day well by buying something. At first I could not see her as I looked at her eclectic stand. I smiled and she came to greet us.
I felt she needed to talk so I stopped and listened. She told me she had had a rough night. She had been so afraid something would happen to her that she had left her door open. At 83 and living in the 5th floor of an old Lisbon building without elevator, she climbs those steps everyday after selling her little produce at the market.
I asked if she had a family. D. Alice told me she had lost her husband years ago and the only family she had, was her goddaughter who gave her support when needed. When D. Alice broke her leg, her doctor had hesitated to operate her due to her age. He pointed out she could die or become an invalid. Still she did not hesitate and two irons in place of bones later, she is still walking and trying to make a living.
And she proudly says it is still ok to climb those 5 floors. She is not short of breath, she does it well and with confidence. So in spite of the irons and the arthritis in her hands, the will to work and live is still strong. I was even more touched when she told me she had unfortunately never learned how to read and write. Very young she started to work as a maid in private houses and then 20 years ago when she lost her husband, she took over his business in the market. She was sorry she had never gotten to learn how to read and write but she was grateful she was able to support herself anyway. I told her I admired her strength and will.
When the time came to choose something, I told her I still had a long road trip ahead so anything I bought had to survive it. We chose things that brought me back good memories, red garlic that I love, the famous piri piri which is a portuguese spice and some other dried herbs we use in Portuguese cooking. She was very kind to my daughter who reciprocated by making her laugh and being very sweet. After bidding farewell to D. Alice I looked back, saw her smile and hoped she would still have a few more years to climb those steps and feel proud about her achievements. Living alone at that age can’t be easy but you have to admire her strength and will power.
After seeing all the wonderful produce, one can get really hungry and there are so many great choices! The Time Out concept was to put in one place all the best Portuguese gourmet food for a reasonable price. The best chefs in the country were on board from the beginning and conceived dishes that showcase our gastronomy in innovative ways. Wonderful menus start at 5 euros so my advice is don’t eat anything before you go to the market and then try a little bit of everything!
We had delicious food. I chose one of my favorite Portuguese dishes, “Polvo a Lagareiro”, which is roasted octopus with potatoes, garlic and wonderful olive oil. It was a nice creative interpretation of the dish and the flavors were all there.
And my husband had a nice potato puree, egg, ham and asparagus dish, seasoned with truffle oil.
For dessert we had banana bread and pudding. My daughter always enjoys a bit of everything, it is nice to see her appreciate food and we always try to expose her to as many flavors as possible. It is always good to encourage children to be open to try different things.
When I went to have a coffee, I saw these beauties, the typical “pastel de nata”, a custard cake which you have to try when you visit Lisbon. The most famous ones can be found in “Pasteis de Belem” a well known bakery in Belém which has the secret recipe inherited from the nuns of the monastery next door. But these were quite nice too.
One of my favorite things about the Mercado da Ribeira is that you can really find the best products in the country there. You can buy for example very special Port wines or famous wines in “Garrafeira Nacional”.
Or buy the best ham, chouricos and cheeses in Manteigaria Silva (open since 1890) from various parts of the country.
Or do as I did and buy the best canned fish in “Conserveira de Lisboa” which opened in 1942 in the city center. The quality is excellent and I’m still enjoying them in Vienna. They have a big variety of fish and seafood usually in extra virgin olive oil with different seasonings and spices.
Another favorite shop is no doubt the “A vida Portuguesa”. Here you get wonderful Portuguese products, some that were no longer being produced. I got a bit emotional when I recognized products I hadn’t seen since childhood, like all these sweets. My daughter has become a big fan of the chocolate umbrellas.
And other special products, if I could, I would have bought everything! At the end, I exercised great restraint and just bought some sweets, “fleur de sel” salt of the region of Ribatejo, a few spices and books …
This is just a little sample but there is a lot more to explore at Mercado da Ribeira. You should also check the first floor where you can take nice pictures of the food stalls.
Enjoy a drink or food at the bar or restaurant terrace and discover other facts that you may not have known about Lisbon. The most relevant I found was the one that said that Lisbon is the European capital with the most days of sunshine: an average of 260 a year!
Notice the beautiful tiles
And just before you take the stairs again, look down! This symbol, the caravel with the crows is part of the coat of arms of Lisbon.
When I left the market, I decided on a whim to cross the street and follow the path along the river Tagus. As I looked along with my family at the seagulls that came to greet us, I felt blessed.
I thought about the market, about everything we had experienced, tasted and bought. But there was something in particular I was still thinking about, that wonderful lady, D. Alice who should be an example for all of us. Going up those five floors everyday in the city I love so much. Worrying sometimes that she won’t make it through the night but still getting up in the morning and going to the market to make her living. I was happy I had stopped and got to know her a little bit. In this crazy, unpredictable world we live in, it is comforting to feel human. To give someone a few minutes of your time, to listen to their story and to be nice. It doesn’t cost you much and it may make their day. You may even learn something. I pray she is safe and well and that I can visit her the next time I go to the “Mercado da Ribeira”.
Mercado da Ribeira
Av. 24 de Julho 50
Mon – Sat 5am to 2pm
Gourmet food court:
Sun -Wed 10 am to midnight
Thur – Sat 10 am – 2 in the morning