It’s hard to imagine now, but Alvalade, a neighborhood north of downtown Lisbon and close to the airport, was comprised mainly of fields in the early 20th century, with farms in the area supplying the Portuguese capital with dairy products as well as fresh fruits and vegetables.
Those farms may be long gone, but this residential neighborhood is still famous for its high-quality produce – except rather than being grown on the land, it’s sold at the Mercado de Alvalade, a municipal market that opened in 1964. Although the produce comes from MARL (the large central wholesale market north of Lisbon), a lot of it is still grown in the fertile region north and west of Lisbon.
Despite losing ground to supermarkets over the years, Mercado de Alvalade has recently started drawing a younger crowd interested in finding farm-fresh products – and when the pandemic hit, it became an essential supplier of fresh produce, fish and other food products to the neighborhood’s residents. While not all the vendors have been able to weather the storm, the ones that remain paint a picture of a market that’s once again a lifeline for the neighborhood.
Alvalade was mostly built in the 1940s, paving over farms and agricultural fields. Still, its modernist urban planning was a breath of fresh air in the city. Both middle-class and rent-controlled buildings in the area have won awards and inspired architects over the years.
It was for the residents of these buildings, as well as the neighborhood restaurants, that the market was built. Designed by the architect Costa Belém, it was considered a “model market” thanks to its concrete structure and unadorned architecture that bordered on Brutalist as well as its large size – almost 3,000 square meters. When it opened on July 31, 1964, the Lisbon mayor and a local priest came for the ceremony, according to newspapers from the time, and so did a brass band. A large crowd from the neighborhood gathered to see the market that would fuel the expansion of this area and its growing population.
Similar to other markets in Lisbon, mothers traditionally pass down stalls at the Mercado de Alvalade to their daughters, as well as their immense experience and knowledge. Maria de Fátima Soares, who has been working here for 41 years, did just that: Her daughter now runs the stall, which is known for its high-quality fruits and vegetables. Although officially retired, she still lends a hand.
On a cold but sunny January day, we ask Fátima how the family is faring almost one year on from the start of the pandemic. While filling a bag with Algarve tangerines (due to Covid-19 restrictions, we’re not allowed to do it ourselves), Fátima explains that what saved the business during the first lockdown (from March to May) was home delivery. “We were open but many customers because of their age were afraid of coming to the market, so we started delivering in the neighborhood. I think that saved us. The stall in front of us unfortunately was not so lucky,” she says, pointing to the empty structure opposite.
She lives on the south side of the Tagus River but still comes to the market most days, and on Mondays she is usually on her own. “My daughter used to come every day with me [when she was a kid], she studied in the neighborhood and now her daughter studies in the school around here. It’s like our second home,” she tells us.
In her experience, the opening of supermarkets is what changed customers’ habits and led to a decrease in shoppers at the municipal markets. Still, more recently she has seen an increase in young clients, which can only bring “hope for the future.” Bracing for the current lockdown, which may last much longer than the one-month period first announced, Fátima and her daughter will keep the stall running and are continuing to offer home delivery. However, the big customers – the restaurants – will stop buying in large quantities, as they are only allowed to operate for takeaway and delivery.
The colorful produce stalls at Mercado de Alvalade are largely decorated with love and a tidiness that you don’t see so often at other markets. However, vendors tell us that the high monthly fees charged by the Junta de Freguesia (the local municipality authority) and the restrictions around adding decorative elements are the reasons why the market doesn’t look as good as they believe it could. Despite this, we find ourselves taken by the ornate stands stocked with specialty cheese and charcuterie, like Cantinho Saloio, where everything looks spotless and mouthwatering.
For people living or working in this area, it has been interesting to see the changes over the years. Paula Carvalho, a customer for more than 30 years, admires the quality and the consistency as well as the ways in which the market has reinvented itself. She continues to shop here, even though it may be a bit more expensive than other markets. The last renovation in 2017 brought a playground for kids in an area that used to be occupied by stalls, and a dining area with chairs and tables. Together with these perks, the longer opening hours on Saturdays led to more people coming in to shop. But the pandemic put an end to all of that.
Paula Carvalho, a customer for more than 30 years, admires the quality and the consistency as well as the ways in which the market has reinvented itself.
Chef Vitor Sobral opened one of his chain bakeries, Padaria da Esquina, in 2019, right in the center of the market. In addition to sourdough loaves, they sell cakes such as bolo de arroz (rice cakes), brioche and croissants alongside other bakeries that have been around for longer, like Pão Saloio, which is famous for its traditional loaves from Mafra and Alentejo. But they seem to coexist peacefully – for the Portuguese, there is no such thing as too many bakeries or pastelarias (pastry shops).
Ilda Costa Pinto and husband, Domingos, have been running their bacalhau stall at the market for 34 years. They are a reliable and trustworthy source for good salt cod (so much so that Anthony Bourdain paid them a visit back in 2012). She tells us that the stall has its busiest period around Christmas time, but that they’ll continue to work through the new lockdown, delivering salt cold from Norway and Iceland as well as frozen fish and a variety of cod specialties (mainly cheeks and tongues).
Butchers and stalls selling flowers, accessories and clothes are also part of the market, usually on the periphery. But there used to be so many more shops selling things other than food, back when the market was the neighborhood’s beating heart.
Teresa Cruz, who has been selling fish for 35 years in Mercado de Alvalade, remembers those days. “When I started working here we had so many more clients and there were many other shops, but we noticed the decline really some 25 years ago, when a lot of people stopped coming because of the supermarkets,” she tells us. “Now we see younger people on Saturdays, some come with their children and that is great to watch.”
Her stall, Cantinho da Teresa, is quite impressive both in size and in the amount of fresh fish available. “I wake up very early to go to MARL and get the best from all the fish auctions in the country. People know me because of quality,” she says. She starts selling at 7 a.m. and during the current lockdown she will keep delivering fish to clients. “It’s the only way to work a bit more, like we did in March and April.”
Teresa sees more quality now overall. “Even the market is much better in the infrastructure, the original stalls were not so great,” she says. We are talking after a busy morning, during which she barely had a moment to breath. “I like what I do so I don’t feel tired. I have seven people working with me and I will keep doing this as long as I can,” Teresa adds.
Before we leave, a staff member from the market’s long-standing restaurant, also named Mercado de Alvalade and positioned close to Teresa’s stall, comes with a client to choose an octopus. This is the advantage of market life: If you’re not happy with the fish on the menu, you can get up and select something different from Teresa’s stall and it will be on your table some half an hour later. This was of course before the lockdown that started on January 15 – now we need to wait some time before we can sit at a restaurant table again. In the meantime, we’ll be spending more time at the market.
Editor’s note: To further explore how the pandemic has affected the areas featured in our 2020 “Neighborhoods to Visit” guide and what recovery may look like, we will be publishing dispatches from restaurants, markets and food shops in these districts all week long.
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