Travel Guide to Portugal

Supermarket Diaries: The Fishwives’ Siren Song

By Sonia Nolasco

BolhaoUnlike the Sirens in Greek mythology, I wouldn’t call the fishwives of Porto’s Mercado do Bolhao dangerous, but they definitely have an allure. Bolhao is the city’s traditional open market, a once vibrant place that is now in desperate need of updated regulations and repair. But what it certainly doesn’t lack at all are charismatic characters.

I spent a day in the market interviewing some of the vendors, giving me the opportunity to observe their colorful interactions with customers. As passersby approach, they immediately cast their net and start pulling them in with their “pregao”—the fishwives’ preach. They belt these preaches out as if they were using a megaphone—you can hear some of them several stalls away. The chants vary, but often involve insisting how fresh their fish is, so fresh it’s “alive.” They yell out diminutive-ized versions of the fish names; the “carapau” turns into a “carapauzinho” and the “robalo” into a “robalinho.” And the ultimate, their fish is “lindo” (beautiful). They’ll woo you with “sweetie” and “good looking,” and offer up suggestions on how to prepare the fish. If you dare disagree, nagging is in order. And, haggling for these ladies is a sport.

Engrossed in interviewing the vendors (everyone from the fishwives and butchers to the restaurant owners), the market closed before I could pick up fish for dinner. Totally bummed, I walked over to the nearest Pingo Doce supermarket. The fish section was fully stocked with several types of whole fish just like in the market, but the magic was missing. The woman behind the counter smiled warmly and answered my questions, then quickly grabbed my fish and started cleaning it in silence. She neither called the fish “lindo” nor me sweetie. Before the fishwives, this might have been enough for me. But now, I was under the fishwives’ spell.

Generally a fan of the selection and service at Portuguese supermarket fish markets, I found myself longing for more than fresh fish. I craved the fishwives’ sharp tongues and their hyperbolic stories. The kindness they show the market cats, occasionally tossing the felines small sardines. I missed their patterned smocks and pretty aprons, their gaudy jewelry and varied hairstyles—at the supermarket hidden under white caps for sanitation purposes.

BolhaoWill the fishwives charge you more for their fish than the supermarket? It’s quite possible; they don’t even have prices on the fish. You have to ask. Apparently, pricing depends on what they paid the fish wholesaler that day. At the crack of dawn, each of them goes to Matosinhos—the neighboring fisherman town—and hand-select what fish they’ll want to feature in their stall that day. Many have been in the business for nearly 50 years (some more!), with generations of fishwive-mothers and grandmothers before them. They’re as specialized as they come.

How personal and passionate this fishy biz is to these women is palpable in how they defend their sea creatures, telling customers that walk away how they won’t find such “lindo” fish. During these moments is when you’ll see signs of the deadly Sirens. You won’t end up sleeping with the fishes, but prepare for seriously dirty looks and a sh*t-load of cursing. In a way, that spunk is part of what you’re paying for!

This might not work for everyone, but for me, their Siren Song is my kind of tune. Preach on sistas!

Ate ja,
Sonia Andresson-Nolasco

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