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Porto’s Mercado do Bolhão has long been a national institution in Portugal. If you’re visiting Porto, it’s a must-see: an architectural and foodie gem located slap bang in the middle of the city. It’s the perfect place to try local specialities and taste and discover the ingredients that Portuguese chefs and home cooks use each day.
Whether you need fruit and vegetables, meat, fresh fish, olives, cheese, flowers, homemade bread or even a quick haircut, Bolhão has it all on offer.
Perhaps because most of the vendors have worked here for decades, their warmth has become famous throughout Portugal. Carlos Mesquita, 26, is from Oporto. ‘I like the people who work here,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t matter if you are nine or 90, male or female, they will always call you sweetheart.’
On the day we visit, Bolhão is bustling – older Portuguese women with large shopping bags point at the choicest pieces of fish and discuss recipe requirements, tourists eat fruit and pastries, and groups of friends meet to drink beers and enjoy a bite at the market’s cafés.
It’s a great spot for lunch. The informal café restaurants that run along the centre of the ground floor source their ingredients from the stalls, making everything fresh and seasonal. We choose a sun-dappled table and as we wait for our meal, the scent of grilled sardines drifts over, whetting our appetite. We eat a salty green soup, smoky grilled fish and a tasty squid salad. Perfeita! (Perfect!)
Fatima Texiera’s fruit stall is a myriad of colours: deep red cherries piled next to fuchsia raspberries and heart-shaped strawberries; a burst of orange apricots beside velvety black plums. The sun is warm on our backs and the sweet scent of fruit hangs in the air as we choose our favourites and add a selection of her homemade quince jelly and jams to our basket.
The fresh fish is particularly good. At her ground-floor stall, Sara Araujo cleans her wares. On the ice in front of her are silvery-blue sardines, pale pink squid and iridescent fish of every shape and size.
Opposite, at Salsichaira Luisa, you can buy another Porto speciality, homemade tripas enfarinhadas (a tripe sausage), alongside chorizo and cured hams. The stall is run by Luisa Silva, who has worked here for 45 years, sharing the task for the last 32 years with her husband Jose Pinheiro. But they’re not the longest-serving traders. Marilia Brandao has worked here for 62 years and Lucinda Leites, 80, tops them all – she has been selling chicken here since she was a child in the early 1940s.
Portugal is famous for its port, but also produces some fantastic non-fortified wines, too. ‘In Portugal there is a wealth of local grapes that bring unique character to the wines and never fail to delight with their special exuberance,’ says P&O Cruises Food Hero Olly Smith. ‘They’re as exciting as hearing The Rolling Stones at full blast for the very first time! Plus, they can be great value. Arinto is a grape that makes white wines so zesty they feel like Flash Gordon in a lemony lightning bolt. If you want to treat yourself to an amazing red, look out for the wines of Julia Kemper – as complex and arresting as the best spy thriller.’
Marilia Brandao (stallholder): ‘I love the market, it’s my life. I’m 73 and I’ve worked here for 62 years. I only had four years of school; I was the oldest of six children so I had to go to work. But I’m very happy here, it’s like having another family.’
Sara Araujo (stallholder): ‘I buy my fish fresh every day. I get up at 3am and go to the wharves in Matosinhos, a city by the sea about 15 minutes from Oporto. My customers are chefs from the nearby restaurants and local people, too. I’ve worked here since I was 11 years old and I still love it.’
Hugo Silva (stallholder): Hugo runs Bolhão Wine House, a small wine bar in the market. ‘This stall has been in my family for 90 years. My grandmother sold flowers here but we decided to do something new. We sell glasses of Douro wine and port, and buy olives, cheese, smoked ham and bread from other stalls in the market to serve as tapas.’
Leo Goodwin, from New Zealand (visitor): ‘It’s our first visit here. We were driving by on our scooter and just had to stop. We’ve just bought some fruit and we might have lunch here as well. It feels very authentic.’
Irene Dewulf and Benoit Dieval (visitors):‘It’s the end of our trip and we love the smoked ham we are buying some to take home with us,’ says French tourist Irene who is here with her son-in-law Benoit. ‘I first came here in 1972 and have been here at least ten times since. I like the people, they are so friendly.’
Maria Alzeira-Costa and Maria Custovia (local shopper and stallholder): ‘I’ve been shopping here for many, many years and I really like it,’ says Maria Alzeira-Costa. ‘I know the people here and I know the quality of what I’m buying and I wouldn’t go anywhere else.’
Fatima Texeira: ‘I make all the jams myself at home. I also make the quince marmalade – it goes really well with cheese.’
Carlos Mesquita (local shopper): ‘I’m meeting friends here for lunch. My grandmother and my mother shopped here and I love the atmosphere and the people who work here; they are very warm.’
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