Two thousand twenty was the year that many of us fell in love with cooking, or at least feeding ourselves good food at home. While a trip to a supersized grocery store filled many of us with dread, a visit to a tiny neighborhood shop—where we might discover a tangy new cheese or collect a bag of August-perfect tomatoes, not to mention have some human interaction with the proprietors—became something to look forward to.
And for a lot of people, that love of gourmet markets didn’t disappear, even when we had more opportunities for social life and restaurant dinners. As my international friends began visiting my adopted hometown of Lisbon again in the optimistic summer of 2021, I noticed that I was getting asked about local markets (mercearias in Portuguese) as often as I was getting asked about restaurants.
At the same time, I started getting opening announcements, hearing local friends’ recommendations and walking past more and more of these intriguing little shops of goodies. With gift-giving season on the horizon, it seemed like time for an overview.
In recent months, Prado Mercearia—adjacent to chef António Galapito’s deservedly lauded restaurant, Prado—gained a reputation among local food lovers as a wine bar and bistro, overseen by a rotating crew of chefs invited by Galapito and promoting a zero-waste policy. But that’s only secondary to its original purpose—to get products from the best Portuguese producers directly into consumers’ hands. That includes fresh organic vegetables, long-fermentation bread, small-production cheeses and natural wines.
Mercearia Criativa—“the creative food shop”—is a traditional grocery store, with exclusively Portuguese products, which are all prepared in a handcrafted, organic and creative way. Or as the owners say, they only sell what they like. Those things they like include cured muxuma tuna (the bacon of fish) from Vila Real Santo António in the Algarve, oysters from the Ria Formosa, sea urchins from Ericeira and cakes from the Azores. They also serve meals and organize workshops about bread, wine and gardening,
At this brand new market in the historic center of Lisbon, the owners are out to revive the spirit of the neighborhood markets that were once cornerstones of community. They brought in Moisés Franco, a chef who worked alongside Portugal’s best-known chef, José Avillez (including at the two-Michelin-star Belcanto), to prepare light meals and also to select the products for sale, including low-intervention wines, long-fermentation bread, small-production cheeses and nearly homemade jams.
Alongside all the newfangled markets, some of Lisbon’s longstanding classics have continued to do what they do best. Manteigaria Silva first opened its doors in the city’s historic downtown in 1890. At the time, butter (“manteiga” in Portuguese) was a luxury product, shipped in from the Azores, and it was the first product sold in the shop. Now the inventory has expanded to include dry-cured hams, all manner of sausages, canned fish from 100 producers, and cheeses from all regions of the country.
In the past few years, this shop has become a hub for neighborhood food lovers. They’re committed to scouting out the tastiest things from rural producers and offering them to city dwellers. (In the lead-up to the second covid lockdown, she created a farmers market to help all the producers whose restaurant clients could no longer buy.) They meet the makers of everything they sell, from cheeses to cured meats to small-production wines.
This little shop won my heart with its commitment to food that’s organic and “yummy” all year round. (And also its name choice of a Portuguese words that somehow means both “with you” and “I can.”) The owners, one Portuguese and one Italian, both grew up in family homes that had backyard gardens, but by the time they met in London, they missed that connection with their fresh food. And so they settled back in Lisbon and opened a shop with the intention of creating a welcoming space where neighbors could find the textures, colors, scents and flavor of what comes from nature.
As the name suggests, the focus of this little shop is olive oil, and it started because the owners were tired of seeing Portugal’s excellent olive oil overshadowed by products from its Mediterranean neighbors. Now they source their olive oils from all over Portugal, from the Algarve to Tras-os-Montes, and they also sell a variety of homewares, like handcrafted wooden spoons, lovely handcrafted soaps, and olive wood serving boards.