Until the middle of the 20th century, street fish sellers called “varinas” were a common sight in Lisbon. They carried a basket of fresh fish on their heads and attracted customers with their catchy slogans and charismatic personalities.
Varinas are a relic of the past, but some of the best fish in Lisbon is still sold by a charismatic woman. Many restaurants in the capital city order their fish from Açucena Veloso.
Visiting Açucena at Mercado 31 de Janeiro is a fascinating experience. It was in a stall in this market that she started selling fish at nine years of age. Today, she owns 23 stalls.
The quality and variety of Açucena’s fish would astonish the patrons of Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market. But it is not easy to gather these marine treasures. Açucena wakes up every weekday at 2:00 am to make sure she buys the best fish the sea has to offer. Despite her long work hours, she’s always in a good mood. “Look at these ocean jewels” she says with pride pointing to fish that go by quaint names like rascasso, cantaril, and emperador.
When Albert Einstein visited Lisbon in 1925, he wrote in his diary about a fascinating varina with a proud, mischievous look. We think he would have loved meeting Açucena Veloso.
Açucena Veloso’s fish stalls are at Mercado 31 de Janeiro, Rua Engenheiro Vieira da Silva, 31, tel. 91 721 8169
Post scriptum: Açucena Veloso died tragically in a car accident in January, 2018. Her daughter Susana and the rest of the family continue to run the fish stalls with the same dedication to quality and service as before. Açucena would be proud.