Wrangling recipes from grandmas isn’t a pursuit for the thin-skinned. Ask for exact quantities, measurements, times… Basically everything you need for a recipe to work, and chances are, you’ll get a touch of this, a sprinkle of that, and a whole lot of furrowed brows, back talk, pity, groans, moans—all of the ingredients that’ll make you want to abort your mission.
In a way, we sort of did. Rather than pressing for every morsel of measurement, we let the grandmas (and a handful of grandpas) of Bolhao Market feed our souls with their vivid memories. We gave up on 100 text book recipes to encapsulate a century worth of community, connection and an unconscious competency that’s treated so nonchalantly at the market that we suspect it’s magic. As each story unraveled, so did meaningful life lessons. Crusty bread loaves are a tale of courage and perseverance. Fish is Fado, a song of the sea, a prayer for survival. Stringed spicy peppers are a curtain into a time of worldly discoveries. Smoked sausage is a story of intrigue, of outsmarting the enemy.
There’s more than firm white flesh to the Portuguese fish that these women sell; there’s the tune they sang on the way to wharves; the sardine baskets that they balanced precariously on their heads; and the personalized sales pitches blared across the market like a megaphone.
Though grandmas all over the world are no strangers to stubbornness, we’re sure, the Portuguese likely win at undervaluing themselves. Despite having once been a global empire, Portugal lived for half a century censored and isolated by a dictator regime. It wasn’t until the mid-70s, when the regime was overthrown, that it began to catch up to other Western European countries. While their neighbors innovated and marketed the best they had to offer, Portugal took baby steps towards regaining their place and pride, fussing little about their gastronomical gems beyond their borders. Interestingly, Bolhao Market felt like a microcosm of Portugal, where the people have so much to give, but carry on as if there’s nothing special about them. But there is. They’re the epitome of authenticity, a model for sustainability and a fountain of generosity.
What years of impoverishment didn’t diminish for the Portuguese is their love for inviting you to the table—a sentiment alive at the market. A sense of sharing and nurturing streams through their veins. We gave up wrestling with the grandmas for recipes in exchange for a seat at their table—for their trust, love and heartfelt stories. We savored their old-world breads, smoky sausages and briny olives, while they unlocked their memory banks and let us give them a voice.
Though we did carefully select a few recipes to feature, ultimately, the people became our key ingredient. Their hardships, their frustrations, their joys, their milestones and their lessons are at the core of Porto: Stories from Portugal’s Historic Bolhao Market.