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Senhor António, the keeper of one of the oldest grocery shops in Lisbon, Mercearia Celta, died two weeks ago. With his passing, Culinary Backstreets Lisbon lost a dear friend and the city lost a living link to what is an increasingly disappearing past.

“That’s life.” This phrase would end most of our conversations and visits to his tidy, old grocery shop. António da Fonseca, or Sr. António, as we knew him, was the most beloved inhabitant of the Campo de Ourique neighborhood and his corner shop a true neighborhood institution. He regularly welcomed guests on our Lisbon Awakens tour with never-ending enthusiasm and would be, for most visitors, the highlight of their walk.

Sr. António was hard to miss: he was at Mercearia Celta since 1945, when he first started working there. It was the end of the Second World War and he was employed to help with rationing – in spite of Portugal’s neutral status during the war, food was scarce, life was hard and the country very poor. At just 16 years old, António had to organize the rationing of food and food stamps for 600 families. Milk, eggs, salt cod, rice, sugar, flour and olive oil were some of the ingredients that needed rationing at that time.

He watched the world pass by from his counter: he witnessed the end of World War II, the Revolution of 25 April (which restored democracy in 1974), Portugal entering the European Union in 1986 and adopting the Euro in 2002. Then, of course, there was the recent Covid-19 pandemic. He struggled during the pandemic – he missed the people, the interactions and talking with the neighbors. He also missed the visits from our tour groups, which involved a chat with him but also a photo opportunity in the old-school shop. With its perfectly preserved wooden cabinets, an antique coffee grinder, and an assortment of soap and food brands that have disappeared, it was truly a time capsule of Lisbon and an example of the small shops that were so vital to local neighborhoods for many decades.

Proud of his job, Sr. António spent 78 years working in that corner grocery shop. Impeccably dressed, Sr. António always wore a tie, and worked every day except Sundays. Since 2017, we had the privilege of visiting him almost daily to say hi, to have a chat about his life experience, about the neighborhood, or to try a ginjinha – he sold the Espinheira variety, which he used to drink with his older brother, Celestino, who brought him to Lisbon from their hometown of Arcos do Tabuaço in Portugal’s northern Douro region when he was just 12.

After his early start, Sr. António started progressing in his career, eventually becoming the general manager of Mercearia Celta and then the owner. João Gomes of Imperial de Campo de Ourique, a renowned old tasca in the same neighborhood, met Sr. António when the grocer first moved to Lisbon. “He was always the same kind person, respecting everyone, a spectacular person and friend,” João recalls.

At the time João worked in a restaurant near the corner shop, and so the two became good friends. “His shop was so busy and had so many customers. He would have also a lot of baskets to be delivered; he had three employees to do the deliveries but of course this was another era, before the supermarkets.”

Destiny would bring them together again when João left Coelho da Rocha street and went to start his restaurant, Imperial de Campo de Ourique, one block away from where Sr. António lived with his wife, Aldegundes, and their daughter, Isabel. “He was always in a good mood,” João said of Sr. António. “Every day he would leave home at 6:30 with his small car, a Renault 4, a car everyone knew from a distance. He never stopped working or driving until his death.” The friendship was older than the French car, and on our CB visits, António would often ask us if we were going to Imperial, sending a hug to his friend.

“Senhor António was a gentleman, the kind of man that is very rare to come by these days,” says Martim Vaz da Silva, one of the CB guides who has been visiting Mercearia Celta for years. “Always impeccably well dressed with his suit and tie (he used to say he had over one hundred). He was hardworking and proud of being active and fit – he would often show us his muscles by raising his arm and twisting his elbow, like Popeye, or, better yet, his special leg “trick”: putting one foot in front of the other, legs still, he would move a muscle near his waist that no one else could move. He had a keen and charming sense of humor and children were his favorite visitors. In the last years he met hundreds, if not thousands of our guests, and in a single lifetime he lived to witness many different worlds.”

Francisca “Kika” Menano, another CB guide who knew Sr. António from many daily visits and from living in the same neighborhood, has fond memories too: “He was really special. He would welcome us with such a friendly smile to his shop. It was such an endearing moment when we would stop by and learn so much about how things were in the past and would also learn from his example, a very hard-working man, passionate about his job, and so aware of how important this was for his mental and physical health.”

Sr. António told in our early conversations how he moved to Lisbon to work as a youngster, following the footsteps of his oldest brother but also to escape the catholic Seminary that his mother and teachers wanted him to join. His first job was in a grocery shop in the Graça district as a marçano, the young boys who used to deliver groceries in Lisbon, many without any cart or trolley, just carrying the products and climbing many flights of stairs in buildings without elevators. All of the exercise and his active lifestyle paid off. Until our final visits in March, Sr. António would show us his strength and flex his muscles.

Sr. António was able to buy Mercearia Celta from its previous owners in the early 1980s, establishing the business with his partner of a lifetime, Aldegundes, to whom he was married for 64 years. He had previously told us how they met ballroom dancing in Padaria do Povo, where the wedding was also celebrated. But Isabel says her mother has a different version: “They met in Mercearia Celta where my mother would go often, and apparently everything started because of an exchange of some coins!” On our visits, Sr. António spoke in detail of his family, and a sparkle would light his eyes when talking about his daughter and granddaughter.

In the late eighties, the supermarket chain Pingo Doce opened a branch in Campo de Ourique, on the same street as Mercearia Celta, attracting many customers. “In the beginning of the 1990s, the clientele was still good for my father and for the other grocery shops in the area. However, other supermarkets opened, and slowly the small businesses started to decline; they couldn’t compete with the prices, and many shops from my childhood disappeared,” Isabel recalls. Sr. António showed sadness but never thought for one second about retiring. “I would go into decline and that would be the end of me,” he said.

Margarida Costa from the restaurant Bitoque spent the last 23 years working next door to Mercearia Celta and Sr. António. “He was so funny, we saw him every day and if we didn’t or we needed something, we would call him. He would come here to talk or to grab lunch. His favorite dish was sardines. On his birthday he invited all of us for a cake and liqueur in the shop. Until a few years ago, on Wednesdays he would have a special lunch with two longtime friends in the shop. And elderly people from the neighborhood were still shopping there some essential things; for instance, he would still order a certain honey for a longtime client.”

Sr. António would speak to our tour groups about the changes in the neighborhood but also about local consumer habits or the groceries he specialized in, the best cheese, butter and salt cod, legumes and fruit, or port wines and coffee. Over the years our guests would ask many different questions, but often the same question would come up: about his healthy and fit appearance. Working every day was one of his explanations. Then he would tell always how he never skipped a meal, how he made sure to get enough sleep and never said no to a half a glass of red wine. Until recently, he would still pick up his supplies for the shop on his own with his Renault.

“His life was the shop,” Isabel says. “He was so proud of his business, so responsible. [We never went without anything] in the golden days of his business. And it was really difficult to convince him to go on a vacation because he held his shop above everything. Being nice was something natural to him; he was always optimistic with a smile on his face, polite, friendly and always in a good mood. In his last few years the visits [CB] did with foreign tourists was the cause for great enthusiasm and the highlight of my father’s day – he would come home proud, reporting on how it went. We, the family, want to thank you for those good moments. We wish he could have lived to 100, but that was not God’s will.”

Or as Sr. António would say, “That’s life.”

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Published on May 03, 2023

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