When we first moved to Lagoa in 1999, we did our shopping in the butchers, drugstores and ‘mercearias’, little grocer’s shops held within owners’ small houses or garages. The nearest supermarkets were in Silves or Portimão.
Over the past 20 years, these quaint mercearias have almost disappeared, displaced by five big supermarkets in the area. The personal service is gone and often now we have to search around the supermarket to find someone who may be able to answer a question, although invariably they have to ask someone else for the answer!
The mercearias are usually family-run, traditionally selling fresh local produce such as eggs, pastries, dried fruits, nuts, olives, fruit, vegetables, a selection of basic foodstuff and household goods.
Nowadays, the younger generation does not want to take over their parents’ business and so eventually most of these mercearias close. Yet, they have been and are essential in providing provisions to the local elderly population who may not have transport to get to the supermarkets or for people who suddenly find they need or have run out of something forgotten during their big supermarket shopping trip.
When I was growing up in Amoreira, near Cascais, there were no supermarkets near our village, so we bought all our groceries from the local shops. There was a small mercearia in a garage at the bottom of our road. It was dark and windowless with a long marble counter in the front and wooden cabinets around the walls.
Customers had a credit ‘tab’ and were allowed to pay at the end of the month. Basic foodstuff like sugar, butter, rice, flour and even soap was sold by weight and carefully wrapped by the grocer in coarse grey paper. When my Portuguese aunt died, we found in her bedroom amazing poems written on these scraps of paper and we never knew she was a writer!
I thought there were still a couple of mercearias in Lagoa, but when I went to visit, they had closed down. There are, however, two modern versions in operation that still have a village shop feel, selling local produce and fresh fish. They are owned by Carla Encarnação and are called Mercearias. I liked seeing, in one, an elderly lady waiting to be served, happily sitting with her dog in the corner watching the hustle and bustle of the shop.
However, determined to find a traditional old-time mercearia, I visited the one in Armação de Pêra, which is simply known as Mercearia da Isabelinha. Run by 81-year-old Maria Isabel Guinote Águas, who has been there for 62 years, the shop is the two front rooms of her house.
Originally, the shop was divided into a tavern run by Isabel’s husband on one side and the grocers on the other side, but the tavern closed in 1986. It was so interesting talking to Isabel. She proudly told me how back in the day, during the village festivals, she used to cook a huge fish stew (caldeirada) and her enormous garden behind the shop was filled with tables and chairs so that the villagers, who would bring baskets of food and drink to share, had wonderful parties. Chatting to me about selling food in the old days, Isabel says she “misses the large tins of pure cow’s butter that was so yellow and sold by the scoopful and the olive oil that came in barrels with a tap so that customer’s jugs could be filled up”.
Isabel prides herself on giving a personal service and loves that her customers remember her, even the holidaymakers coming back year after year. She is well known in the town.
The mercearia always was, and still is, a place for people to share their thoughts and worries and find out the local gossip! While I was there, many people came in to buy one or two items, stopping for a chat with Isabel and with me, many offering their advice on setting the world to rights.
Most of the customers were Portuguese and I guess the tourists would not think to enter this small grocer, especially when it is not evident from the outside that it is a shop. However, they should, for here they would get Portuguese products and biological locally grown produce (much of which is grown by Isabel’s son) and a taste of Portuguese tradition. I loved the fading handwritten price tags on all the shelves!
All sorts of dried beans, pulses and nuts can still be purchased by the kilo in the few remaining mercearias. The younger generations do not tend to buy these as the soaking and cooking take too long, so, like me, they prefer to open a tin or jar which are less tasty and healthy – or so I am told!
I usually shop in a small supermarket where I can go up and down the aisles without having too much choice. When I go shopping, I seem to enter a twilight zone, as dazed I wander up and down trying to buy groceries for the next week and invariably end up buying stocks of food that either goes off or ends up accumulating in the pantry.
With a local mercearia and butcher, I would no doubt just buy as needed because I am not very domesticated when it comes to cooking and cleaning as there are so many other more exciting things to do!
It seems that history is being lost as the old mercearias close, but did you know that they are actually coming back into fashion in the big cities albeit with a twist on the traditional shop?
New-style mercearias are opening up in Lisbon and Porto with these old-world designed shops providing a personal service where the owners invariably know the names of their customers, serve the local community and are also becoming a tourist attraction.
Typically, they sell the bread, cured meats, cheeses, olive oils, honey, cakes etc., sourcing their products from all over Portugal. However, they also provide snacks and meals served in the mercearia for customers to taste the products that are for sale. It is a wonderful concept, full of neighbourhood spirit and emulating the ‘locals’ sitting in the mercearias passing the time of day and catching up on all the local news.
So, next time you see people coming out of a little house with shopping bags, take a peep inside and you might be surprised at what you will find and what you can buy.
So now you know!
By Isobel Costa
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Isobel Costa works full time and lives on a farm with a variety of pet animals! In her spare time, she enjoys photography, researching and writing.