Today, I again take a more emotional approach to presenting a part of Portuguese culture that has very quickly captured my affections: the mercearia. Most current incarnations of this cultural phenomenon are found primarily in Lisbon and Porto, typically founded in the early 1900s. Their offerings run a wide range: seasonal fruits, dried herbs, nuts and spices, conservas (or canned seafood products, i.e. sardines, tuna, mussels, bacalhau and shrimp paste), popular table wines and Port wine.
Historically, many mercearias are inclined toward specialising in specific products (for example, some are dedicated to the highest quality bacalhau, with others are committed to a wide selection of sardine brands). The mercearia, in general, now functions as a hold-me-over of a previous generation that has failed to pass from the common, and firmly remains as a common heritage of local city-dwelling Portuguese.
For me, the mercearia is a step back into the time of the general store, before the Wal-marts of the world had modernised convenience and caused nearly an entire generation of ‘mom and pop shops’ to disappear. Those ‘mom and pop shops’ are on full display in cities like Porto and Lisbon, where they form a historical backbone for alimentation in the modern age. Mercearias remain a bastion of specialty goods in a shop intended to be passed on through the generations. To operate a mercearia is not shameful, or ‘beneath’ the dignity of the child who takes on the family responsibility. It is an honour to continue the heritage established as a centrepiece of the local community, anticipating food needs and preferences to such a degree that the ease of continuing the business intergenerationally is hardly considered a risk.
Mega-stores like Wal-mart are unlikely to find the same success in Portugal that they’ve found in the USA, because the combination of attention to quality products, the historical importance of this type of shop, and the easy-breezy pace of life in Portugal allows for such a traditional stronghold to maintain. Many mercearia owners now straddle the world between locals who have been buying there for years, and tourists newly thronging stores, both in pursuit of moments and memories that have become a part of the past.
I myself am a massive fan. Don’t get me wrong. It’s definitely easier to go to a monstrous supermarket to purchase any number of products. It’s simply not as convenient to go to the butcher for your meat, the baker for your bread, the wine shop for your wine, and the mercearia for your specialty goods…but perhaps the Portuguese have missed that memo. I think they are actually better off for not having paid it any attention.
Perhaps it’s for all the reasons above that I find myself perusing the aisles of my local mercearia each week. It’s a shopping experience that takes me back in time, and keeps me in touch with the local preferences of my new adoptive community. Knowing that the livelihoods of these local providers are woven into the tapestry of how the market areas are established rings true for me, and visiting the mercearia has certainly proven to be my kind of shopping experience.