A century-old landmark with a rich history, the Bolhão Market is the culinary heart of Northern Portugal. Though deteriorating conditions have forced many vendors to leave, some still remain—from fishwives singing their seductive pregão, to bakers hawking crusty broa baked in wood-burning ovens, to butchers offering up favos de mel for the city’s signature tripe stew.
Porto is about these vendors, and their stories are for those who want to know what to do, see, and eat when they visit the North. Nestled between the sea and the esteemed Douro Valley, Porto is the heart of one of Europe’s premier—though often overlooked—food destinations. The people of Bolhão embody the spirit and tradition of this enchanting city.
Learn more about Porto firsthand from authors Sonia Andresson Nolasco and Gabriella Opaz!
How did you get involved in the food and travel industry? Have you always had a passion for food and culture or was it something you found later in your career?
SONIA ANDRESSON NOLASCO: My background is in newspapers and trade magazines, as well as public relations. Food and travel writing started as a creative side gig for me, but my appreciation for good food started in childhood. At age five in Portugal, my life’s goal was to marry the butcher because of his garlic and parsley sausages. It was also my strategy to never go hungry— times were tough then. This love of wholesome food followed me to the United States as a child immigrant. Nostalgic for our Portuguese food, my mother and aunts recreated meals from the old country. For example, we would pile the family into cars and head to New Jersey farmland. After selecting a pig for slaughter, we would spend the afternoon gorging on a snout-to-tail stew. For years, I had an innate interest and firsthand knowledge of Portuguese food culture, but I didn’t take it seriously until my early 30s, when I decided to share it with readers on a blog called Catavino (today, a tourism company). I submitted a guest post for fun, and the reactions were extremely positive. Gabriella, who had founded Catavino with her husband, Ryan, convinced me to write another post, and another. Nine years later, we’re still collaborating! The book was a result of this journey.
GABRIELLA OPAZ: My story with food, culture, and travel began at birth. My parents took us on semi-annual trips to visit family in far-off places, where the culture was tantalizing, the landscape was exotic, and the dinners were brought by both friends and strangers looking to swap stories over cocktails and appetizers. From Mexico City to New York City, these escapades ignited a passion and helped me escape from daily Midwestern meals of bulk packaged foods and TV dinners. These trips and my paternal family’s immigration from Spain inspired me to move to Europe. In 2005, Ryan and I moved to Spain with a few thousand dollars, zero language skills, and no visa. We wanted to feel the grapes under our feet, dance in local festivals, and learn another way of being. In 2013, we moved to Portugal when I was six months pregnant, believing in the grace and humility the Portuguese tend to extend to immigrants. We couldn’t have made a better choice.
How did this book come together? What originally inspired you to share the stories of the Bolhão Market?
SAN: I had been contributing to Catavino for four years when Gabriella suggested we write a book together. I hadn’t met Gabriella or Ryan in person, but in 2014, we spent a few days together, and our chemistry couldn’t have been stronger. With encouragement from my husband (Paulo, my patron of the arts!), I quit my public relations job in Manhattan and got on a plane to Porto. After bouncing around ideas, we decided that writing about the food, wine, and landscape wasn’t enough. We needed to focus on the people and their deep connection to food. We wanted to infuse the book with a rich sense of place and own views on everything from community and sustainability to immigration and preservation. We considered tackling all of Portugal, but with Catavino’s roots in the North and Bolhão Market’s abundance of inspiration, we couldn’t resist focusing on the market and its connections with the rest of the region. Bolhão’s core values resonate with our own. The more time we spent there, the more we felt connected to it, including its vendors’ struggles born from decades of neglect and false promises from city hall that renovation would come for this 100-year-old landmark. We felt a sense of urgency to collect their stories, especially since many vendors are elderly, and some have left the market since we completed the book.
GO: It took one trip through Bolhão to set our hearts on fire. It took one trip to have us melt into the stories of the vendors while they lamented their romantic past and tearful future. The market embodied everything both of us were fighting for: connection, community, kindness, authenticity, sustainability, tradition, and of course, food. It was the perfect muse to tell our story, and it fit beautifully with Catavino’s mission to share Portugal’s rich history and culture with the rest of the world.
Portugal has seen a record-breaking number of visitors for the past six consecutive years. We hear they are planning building another airport in Lisbon to accommodate all of them! What is it about Portugal that is capturing everyone’s attention? And why should visitors head to Porto?
SAN: You get so much for your money! Portugal has world-class museums, beaches, islands, wineries, restaurants, music—all the bells and whistles you would expect from the most popular western European countries but cheaper and more compact with welcoming people. There are also experiences that can only be had on Portuguese soil, like Fado houses and Port wine lodges. It’s a place loaded with character. Both Lisbon and Porto are worthy of a visit—it’s like asking people to choose between San Francisco and New York City. It makes no sense to choose—but unlike San Francisco and New York, Porto and Lisbon are only a three-hour train ride from each other; it would be a shame not to visit both while you’re in Portugal. The mistake, I would say, is booking Portugal on the way to other European destinations. Portugal should be your main destination because it doesn’t end with Lisbon or Porto, though they are two fantastic reasons to visit. That’s the change we’ve hoped to see, and there are signs that it’s happening. Portugal is too much of a treasure to be an afterthought!
GO: Yes, Portugal as a whole needs to be explored! To date, I can’t find a city in Portugal that doesn’t have something magical and intriguing about it. Narrow cobblestone streets ascend through ancient cities, where you’ll find historic architecture, beautiful palaces, secret gardens, soulful restaurants, lush vineyards, and jaw-dropping landscapes. Each region in Portugal has its own cuisine, unique microclimates, and incredible people. The North of Portugal, including Porto, is a lush, green oasis with enough charm and majestic character to make Edinburgh seem bland. Plus, it’s evolving, shifting, and developing at an incredible rate, providing a vibrant, new, raw energy. No longer are streets littered with abandoned houses, nor dogs roaming the alleyways in search of food. Porto is now one of the cultural and gastronomic hotspots of Europe, welcoming chefs, artists, and designers to set up homes and fuse their ideas into the Portuguese fabric.
What is on the must-eat list for someone who is visiting Northern Portugal for the first time?
SAN: There’s so much that should be on a Northern must-eat list, but here’s what I consider a perfect Porto food day for me:
Breakfast. Thick slices of torrada (Portuguese toast) with globs of salted butter and a steamy glass of galão (similar to a latte).
Snack. If savory, a slice of bôla de carne (meat stuffed bread) with a fino (beer on tap). If sweet, a Jesuíta (cinnamon and egg cream convent pastry) and a dark espresso.
Lunch. It’s a toss-up between seafood or sandwiches. Porto is sa
ndwich heaven, so take your pick from bifanas (garlicky pork cutlets), francesinha (fresh and smoked sausage, steak, melted cheese, tomato beer sauce), prego no pão (steak sandwich topped with a fried egg), and more! For fish, try whole, butterflied grilled fish and the freshest shellfish in the towns of Afurada or Matosinhos (both near the city).
Dinner. Rustic is the way to go for me: a bowl of caldo verde (kale or collard greens soup) and an alheira (garlic and game sausage) with hunks of broa (cornmeal bread) and a bottle of a Douro red.
After dinner. A shot of a 20-year tawny Port wine with an espresso and silky leite crème (Portuguese crème brûlée).
GO: Here’s my list:
Breakfast. A Portuguese brioche-style croissant, sumptuously paired with milk and coffee. The croissant is perfect for dipping and a gorgeous way to savor the morning in any number of neighborhood cafes.
Lunch. Especially on Sunday, seek out grilled fish. There is nothing that makes me happier than sitting on a terrace with a glass of Vinho Verde, grilled Snook (European sea bass) drizzled in olive oil and sprinkled with salt, a bowl of perfectly punched potatoes, warm crusty bread, and a simple fresh salad. With the waves crashing along the coast, the entire experience is unforgettable.
Dinner. Why not cozido à portuguesa? It’s a traditional stew made with potatoes, cabbage, carrots, meats, and pig’s feet and ears, as well as a variation of smoked sausages such as morcela, chouriço, alheira, or my favorite, farinheira. And let’s not forget soup! If there was ever a culture that mastered the soup, it’s the Portuguese. Taken before lunch and dinner, it’s your flavorful vegetable medley of the day!
What’s your favorite Porto culinary tradition?
SAN: Though I don’t bake bread (this needs to change!), I did grow up with grandmothers and aunts who whipped up enough loaves to feed an army in one afternoon. Yet, one type of Northern bread managed to elevate the bread-baking experience for me. It’s broa de Avintes—made with cornmeal and rye—which is unique to the Porto area. Its traditional baking method is a secret of the bread brotherhood—I’m not kidding, there are food brotherhoods in Portugal. Food is serious business over there! The story behind broa de Avintes is a big part of the appeal to me. It all revolves around the female bakers from the town of Avintes, who would bake the bread and transport it up the Douro River in boats. Then they would dock and ascend a now vanished staircase onto the medieval streets of Porto—all with 100 pounds’ worth of bread in baskets atop their heads! The best part is that you can meet an actual descendent of these women at the market: Rosa the baker.
GO: Having grown up in the Midwest, renowned for its juicy, nine-inch steaks and smoky barbecued ribs, I was only faintly familiar with the flavor of grilled fish. It was a delectable concept that I associated with exotic locations like California, Norway, and Spain. And though Spain does have a phenomenal fish culture, it pales in comparison to Portugal’s grilling expertise. There’s something ethereal in how the Portuguese make every butterflied fish and chubby sardine taste heavenly with nothing other than salt and fire. Sure, the ingredients are phenomenal, but there’s an age-old culinary secret that courses through their seafaring veins. Now, extend this gastronomic net to include the Portuguese connection to the sea, the fishwives’ tales that flow from Bolhão, the Discoveries, Fado music, and saudades—a deep, melancholy sense of nostalgia or longing—and you have a rich tapestry of stories to share!
What’s your favorite story in the book?
SAN: It’s tough to pick just one story, but if I must, it would be Lucinda Leite in the poultry chapter. Although she is in her late 80s, she’s a force of nature. She raises most of her own poultry, which she displays live at the market for on-demand slaughtering that she does with her own hands. There’s nobody at the market who is as interconnected with the food they sell as Lucinda. She is the last remnant of hardcore Bolhão, the essence of sustainability. And I love her rebellious nature—during her childhood, she stuffed baby pigeons under her shawl to ensure her mother avoided paying unfair taxes on the birds. She has the ability to surprise me unlike any other vendor in the market. You don’t expect a chicken-slaughtering grandmother to tell you about her flirtatious encounters with the air force pilots who visited the market back in the day!
GO: Nothing grabbed my attention quite like Helena Rosa and her daughter. “When my daughter was three, she would come with me to the market every day and when we arrived at the door, I would point up the street and say, ‘When you turn four, you’re going to school up there,’” says Helena Rosa. “And before I knew it, my daughter grabs a bus by herself and gets off in front of the school, walks in, and says, ‘I’m the daughter of Rosa the baker, and I’m coming to school.’” There’s something so counterintuitive to this story, so wildly opposed to our current way of living, that I’m perpetually drawn to it. In an age of paranoia, where all strangers are dangerous and all children are prey, this story feels powerful! For every parent, like myself, who strives to teach our children to reach across the chasm and engage, connect, and care about the people around him, Helena Rosa and her daughter are inspirational. Recently, I asked my son if he would role-play during our trip to the city center. He would be the mother and I would be the child. Despite being a little shy, he confidently and successfully navigated us there. This level of selfawareness, street smarts, community, and confidence is exactly what an open-air market like Bolhão stands for.
What’s next for you?
SAN: Like the vendors of Bolhão Market, there are many other voiceless, forgotten people and places in Portugal that I would like to honor in a book. The region that most of my family is from—Beira Baixa in southern Central Portugal—is a source of inspiration for my nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. Hopefully, I can crank out one of each just as soon as I can get my newest role as a first-time mom under control. Juggling babies, books, and blogs is an adventure. Wish me luck—I’ll need it!
GO: As a communication and storytelling consultant, I work with companies (primarily tech) and universities internationally to help them find and use their own voices. I’m also determined to complete my next book called Letters to Mica. The book is a manual for my son to know the tools he has at his disposal to be vulnerable, empathetic, compassionate, communicative, self-aware, and loving.