It’s 5:20 in the morning and while most lisboetas are still sleeping, Lurdes and Ermelinda Neves are already arriving at the Mercado da Ribeira in the Cais do Sodré neighborhood. Cooks and chefs from Lisbon’s restaurants start showing up at this central market at 6 a.m., and these two seafood sellers need to prep their stall for the day.
On this April day, there are clams, both from Setúbal and the prized ones from Ria Formosa, in the Algarve; sea snails; the beloved percebes (gooseneck barnacles); mussels and canilhas (a kind of small and spiky whelk) from Peniche; and cockles and shrimp of different origins – although the best seafood usually comes from the southern shore, the western coastline also yields some excellent specimens.
On Friday, Lurdes and Ermelinda might arrive even a bit earlier as it’s a big shopping day for both professionals and home cooks. “It’s the day when we get all kinds of seafood, our stall is so beautiful,” says Lurdes.
Lurdes, 69 years old, has had a stall in the market since 1983. “It’s been some happy 36 years, especially since my daughter started working here with me,” she proudly tells us. Ermelinda, her 47-year-old daughter, smiles and agrees: “I love being here with my mother.”
Although she trained and worked as a lawyer, Ermelinda left her practice around 12 years ago to work at the stall with her mother. “When I got married and had a child I had to choose. I had opened my law office, but I chose to stay with mom,” she explains. It’s certainly a business she knows well – even when she was studying law, Ermelinda would come help Lurdes at the market.
These two always greet customers with a smile and a kind word, whether they know them or not. Lurdes gestures and utilizes her expressive face when she needs to explain something to non-Portuguese clients and Ermelinda is not there to translate. They are well known in the market, both for their high-quality seafood and their pleasant demeanor.
“[Friday] is the day when we get all kinds of seafood, our stall is so beautiful.”
Lurdes has worked in the seafood business for many years, gaining invaluable experience along the way. She got her start helping a vendor in Ribeira who needed a hand during the holidays in 1968. But what was supposed to be a temporary job morphed into a career, one that she has worked hard at for decades. She recalls how good business was back then, when she got her start. “We would sell six bags of cockles, each weighing 30 kilos, and some 20-30 kilos of clams. My boss was doing a lot of money,” she tells us.
Although she spent many years working for other people, Lurdes’ friendliness charmed customers, and her knowledge of seafood won her a loyal following. Eventually, on account of the substandard working conditions and paltry salary, she decided to bid for her own stall. It was expensive and there was a lot of competition, but she finally snagged one in 1983.
It was only six years ago that she managed to move to her current stall, located inside the main vegetable, fruit and fish pavilion, on the right hand side from the main entrance. “This location is much better,” she tells us while simultaneously taking down an order for Easter weekend. “Get me two small lobsters please, I prefer that to a big one, it’s for my birthday!” exclaims the woman in Portuguese. Once she moves away to finish her shopping, a French customer slides in to buy fresh clams and frozen tiger shrimp.
“Thank God I have many loyal customers and many new ones from other countries that now live in Lisbon,” Lurdes says once she has a moment to catch her breath. Indeed, it’s now common to see recent French and Italian transplants shopping in the markets, confidently deploying Portuguese words like amêijoa (clam) and sapateira (crab).
“D. Lurdes, can you sell me just a few canilhas?” asks a lisboeta. These peculiar, rubbery creatures are expensive, around €27 per kilo – the same price as the bigger clams from Ria Formosa, in the Algarve, which are harder to find these days.
Both mother and daughter remember how there used to be more seafood available – much more of it and better quality as well, all at cheaper prices. “Especially the clams, we’ve noticed a big difference,” says Ermelinda. The law now requires a quality certified seal for seafood; moreover, the clams (and other shellfish such as cockles and mussels) must be sold in one-kilo bags, never by weight. This makes it hard for families who can only afford half a kilo or even 250 grams.
Lurdes fondly remembers how, for many years, all the freshest seafood from the Algarve was found only here. In fact, until 2000, Mercado da Ribeira also functioned as Lisbon’s wholesale market. That year, after the wholesale section was moved to another site, the market saw a steep decline in business.
But in 2014, the opening of the Time Out Market, a massive food hall, in one of the pavilions of Mercado da Ribeira brought an influx of people to the fish and vegetable and fruit stalls. “Before that, the market was dying, now there are curious clients that come here after being on the other side eating,” says Lurdes.
Sadly most of the restaurants and kiosks in the food court don’t buy their seafood at the market’s stalls – only in an emergency when they run out of something.
But Lurdes and Ermelinda still have their very faithful clients, both individuals and restaurants in Lisbon. The highly regarded Último Porto, Solar dos Presuntos and Taberna Sal Grosso source their seafood from these two women, who not only sell the best, but do so in a warm-hearted way.
Editor’s note: To celebrate the start of spring, we’re running a series entitled “Meet the Vendors,” where our correspondents introduce us to some of their favorite market vendors and their spring products.