I’m like a kid in a candy store. My eyes are wide and I have a giant happy smile on my face. I flow from aisle to aisle, gazing at all the products in wonderment. I pass by the seafood counter, investigating all the fish that are completely foreign to me, seeing where they come from and asking the fish lady about them to see if I can decipher an English language equivalent. I spend way more time than I should at the deli/cheese fridge, totally amazed at the sheer variety and quality that’s offered at such an affordable price. The same products would be offered back home for 3 times the price if not more. Not even a big drinker of alcohol, I stand stunned, in the alcohol aisles… sometimes 2-3 aisles of the store, and sometimes wall to wall, floor to ceiling of an entire section of the store. Food shopping in Portugal amazes me every time I go, and I’m not even talking about gourmet shops… the scene I just described is in the everyday grocery store that you can find all over the country. I look like a madman to the locals who shop here multiple times a week and think nothing of it, but it’s just so different than what I’m used to in Toronto. The concept is the same, but the products and little details are what get me.
First thing’s first… different types of food shopping you’ll find in Portugal for your daily needs:
We’re all familiar with this type of store in Canada, as this is pretty much the way 95% of our North American community shops. It’s the large format supermarket we all know and (sometimes) love. Think Loblaw’s. In Portugal, you’ll find names like Continente, and Pingo Doce. I don’t really have to describe the layout of these places because you already know… the difference is in the products, as I’ll describe in another section below.
These stores can be found dotted all over cities and small towns in Portugal. They are basically the equivalent of our convenience stores. There are two major differences though… all of them have at least a small selection of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as quite a large selection of wines and other alcohols.
Literally translating to “grocery store”, this one is a very small version of a grocery store and these days tends to be a little more gourmet… or at least in the presentation. It’s almost like a cleaner version of a convenience store that carries fresh fruits and veggies, but also has a small meat/cheese counter that sells unpackaged deli meats, cheeses and breads.
The mercados in Portugal are what you imagine when you think about a typical European fresh market. For a Toronto equivalent, think St. Lawrence Market. As they tend to be quite large, many towns have only one central market like this, but in Lisbon, you’ll find several of them. The more advanced and updated ones have food services (restaurants and food vendors) inside them. These markets are a chef’s paradise (and really, anyone who appreciates good food).
My Favourite Products That Are Inaccessible (or too damn expensive) in Toronto
By now, it’s known worldwide that Portugal has great wines at great value. For years, Portugal has been hiding in the shadows of its more well known wine-producing cousins – Spain, France, Italy, but now the country is beginning to be noticed. Surprisingly to a lot of people, Portugal is reportedly the largest per capita wine-consuming country in the world. This partly explains why their wines aren’t as famous internationally… because they keep it all for themselves! Many countries that produce wine have a few areas that specialize in the ancient beverage, but every single region is Portugal is a wine region, from top to bottom, with many uniquely Portuguese grapes being used in addition to imported ones. For many visitors to Portugal, the one thing that people can’t get over the most is just how inexpensive the wines are. Usually, we’re used to cheap wine being crap wine. In Portugal, cheap wines are still pretty decent wines, and medium-priced wines are top quality. You won’t even find expensive wines at stores unless they are the super vintage best of the best type of wines.
The other thing about wine in Portugal, is that you’ll predominantly find local wines here. It’s very rare that you’ll see sections of imported wines from other countries. I mean, why bother when there are hundreds of amazing locally-produced wines, each offering a wide variety of characteristics? I won’t go into the details about Portuguese wines here… I’ll save that for another dedicated post, but just know that you can find a larger selection of great quality Portuguese wines at even the crappiest convenience store than we have at the LCBO. Oh yeah, just thought you should know…. they have little wine drinking boxes.
Olive Oil (azeite)
Another product that I’m absolutely in love with in Portugal is the olive oil. Like wine, this is one that often gets overlooked from this country, with the international community looking towards Spain, Italy or Greece. Also just like wine, much of the reason for the lack of international recognition is because they simply don’t bother exporting most of it. The Portuguese like to keep Portuguese products in Portugal… especially for such essential ones as wine and olive oil. Olive trees can be found dotting the landscape all over the country, from way up in the north all the way down to the sunny Algarve. There’s as much variety in the olive oil as in the wines, and you can find all sorts of excellent quality bottles at the simple grocery stores around the country for about 1/3 of the price that we’d pay in Toronto. High quality olive oil is a luxury back home… it’s a splurge when I’m shopping in T.O. In Portugal, it’s a necessity, and it’s so cheap that it makes my heart hurt with excitement.
Cured Meats (enchidos)
This is the point in most markets when I begin to cry a little tear. I’m a really huge fan of cured meats, and they are so available in Portugal, in such a great variety, that you don’t even have to go to a specialty store for them. Sausages are a big thing in Portugal. Everyone knows about the chouriço, but there’s also morcela (blood sausage), alheira (game meat sausage), and farinheira (flour-based, sometimes made with pork fat). You’ll also see salsicha, which just means “sausage”, but is most commonly used to label what we think of salami or pepperoni. The sausages you’ll find will vary in flavour and style depending on what town/region they come from.
The Portuguese also have their own version of cured ham, known as presunto (think, prosciutto). It’s just as common in Portugal as it is in Italy, and there’s a version of it made in all areas of the country. The pork in the north is different than that of the south, partly due to climate, but also due to the breeds of pigs used. Of course, you can find some cheaper stuff in grocery stores, but you’ll also find some pretty high quality ones as well. The best pork in Portugal (and in my opinion, the world) comes from Alentejo, the hot, dry region in that makes up 1/3 of the country and is the home to the black Iberian pigs. North Americans may know the famous Jamon Iberico da Bellota from Spain, that is pretty much the most expensive cured ham you can buy, but what most people don’t know is that many of the pigs used for this ham come from southern Portugal where they are raised. Spain does have the black pigs as well, but they get a lot of them from Alentejo. If you’re searching for the good stuff, look for porco preto (black pork), Iberico (Iberian breed).
If you’re in Lisbon, you can find the absolute best of cured meats and cheeses at Manteigaria Silva in Praça da Figueira.
Necessities Are Actually Affordable
There are certain food products that most of us consider necessities – milk, eggs, butter, flour, sugar, etc. Unlike Toronto, these products are super cheap, so anyone can afford them. You can buy a 1 litre box of milk for as little as 49¢! A dozen eggs might cost you only €1.19. Quite often, you’ll walk out of a store with 2-3 giant bags full thinking you bought too much, and end up only spending about €30-€40. Nothing is perfect, but in general, grocery shopping in Portugal is much, much cheaper than in TO.
To Refrigerate or Not?
In North America, we seem obsessed with sterilization. Food health and safety is a big deal, and North American companies sterilize literally everything that is sold. In Europe however, they have almost more stringent food safety laws, yet sterilization and refrigeration aren’t on the same level as it is in N.A., yet they also have a lot fewer cases of food poisoning. In Toronto, we wouldn’t ever dare think about not putting milk or eggs in the fridge, but in Portugal, these items will be found on the shelves beside coffee, cereal, or some other dry goods product. It’s also much easier, and more likely to find raw, unprocessed products, especially when it comes to milk and eggs.
Where Susete and I are staying right now, at her sister’s house on São Miguel in the Açores, we get these items free and fresh every day. My brother-in-law is a dairy farmer and he brings home milk still warm from the cows daily, with full fat, and it’s the best milk I’ve ever had in my life. Also each day, we get fresh milk from the goats in the backyard, and eggs from the chickens. It’s also interesting to note that they never get sick here.
Emphasis On Locality
One thing I love most about food in Portugal is that they really put a priority on local products. Sure, there are items from international companies, just like anywhere else, but for the most part, Portuguese stores carry a lot of Portuguese products. The availability of fresh products are often based on what’s seasonal… luckily Portugal has a fairly temperate climate to be able to grow food most of the year. Restaurants in Portugal showcase locality better than anywhere else I’ve seen. Lots of countries are famous for local products, but what I find is uniquely Portuguese is that they will intermingle local with international. They have restaurants of many nations and cultures, but it seems that no matter which type of cuisine they are doing, they will do it using local Portuguese products. I absolutely love this, and this is something that we’re missing out on big time in Toronto, and why we don’t really have a culinary identity of our own.
All in all, food shopping in Portugal is exciting. Well, that is for a foreigner like me, because it’s so different than at home. I love discovering new products, and figuring out the difference here like it’s a puzzle that needs to be solved. The way I eat and shop, the stores here fit my style much more than at home, and I know I’ll have some saudade when we return back to TO and certain European products cost an absolute fortune, if available at all.