Island of Sao Miguel, Azores
With eyes bulging wide and clear as glass marbles the variety of fish on ice at Peixaria Almeida stare back as if to say “what are you looking at”?
With exotic names like Alfonsim, Boca-negra, Chicharro, Goraz and Peixe-porco we immediately knew that Peixaria Almeida was no ordinary fish market. Other species such as salmon, swordfish and the various tuna were easy to identify but the bountiful remainder were a lesson in “buy-it-and-try-it”.
So buy-it-and-try-it we did.
Peixaria Almeida fishmarket occupies a pristine white building with floor to ceiling glass and signage so blue it reminds you of where fish come from.
Not that you will forget once you have stepped inside.
Although the current building may be relatively new this multi-generational business is anything but new. Going back over 50 years the Almeida family has deep roots in the fish industry with humble beginnings as a fish cart owned and operated by the family’s patriarch. Next came a small motorcycle to make deliveries to local customers followed by their first, and then a second, van. Along the way the family’s reputation as honest providers of the freshest fish at the best prices continued to grow, as did their business.
It was inevitable that eventually a dedicated store would be needed to accommodate the growing business. To the delight of their loyal customers the first market opened in Ribeira Grande and from this adventurous beginning as retailers they continued to thrive for another 25 years. Fast forward to 2018 and the new state-of-the-art market, still located in Ribeira Grande, continues to be a mecca for fish lovers throughout the region as well as a growing number of tourists.
And for good reason.
The fish sold at Peixaria Almeida is 100% local, sustainably caught and uber fresh. The boisterous and friendly staff are knowledgeable and patient, which came in handy considering that we don’t speak Portuguese!
Watching the fishmongers, men and women alike, filet fish is like watching an open heart surgery. Their knife skills are astonishing and to observe them portion out a 50 pound bluefin or yellowtail tuna will leave you slack-jawed. When finished with a big fish they simply grab the powerful sink sprayer and hose themselves down from chest to feet. Wearing a heavy-duty commercial apron and knee high rubber boots certainly helps!
In addition to their retail market Peixaria Almeida is also responsible for supplying 70% of the fish to hotels and restaurants on the island. Considering that just one of the more popular seafood restaurants purchases an average of 200 to 300 kilos of fresh fish daily that amounts to a lot of fish.
That is a long way from pushing a fish cart around Ribeira Grande!
Our first purchase was a considerably lighter haul than 200 kilos but we bought enough to enjoy a couple dinners. We settled on some Azorean seabream (aka :: Besugo) and some bluefin tuna filets. Both choices were exquisite on the plate and we vowed to return for more.
Our second visit was even more informative and entertaining than the first. Due to the pandemic and the necessary concerns regarding hygiene, the market allowed a maximum of three people in at a time. This proved to be a good thing in that the staff had more time to spend with each customer which allowed us to ask more questions than if the the restrictions were not in place.
On that second visit we talked with a local woman who was buying an entire 25 pound bluefin tuna. Her purchase allowed us, once again, to watch the fishmonger filet it into large pieces suitable for her to finish portioning once she returned home. The price for her entire tuna came to less than the cost of a decent sushi meal in any Japanese restaurant. Our bluefin filets cost nearly as much as her entire tuna!
We need a bigger fridge!
Noticing our amazement at the size of the tuna just purchased and filleted, one of the fishmongers called for us to wait a minute just as we were leaving. He disappeared into the cold storage area and emerged pulling a plastic bucket with an even bigger bluefin. This one easily weighed 50 pounds!
Things were about to get interesting.
He stuck his middle finger behind the eye of the tuna (he said that picking the fish up this way prevents it from slipping out of his hand) while grabbing the other end by the tail and hoisted it on the cutting table. After a quick sharpening of his knife he masterfully made three or four cuts and the head of this massive fish was removed and tossed in a large plastic bucket under his table.
It was that quick and with no drama.
After removing the head he made another round of long and very precise cuts, one along the top and another along the belly with both cuts meeting at the tail. With a quick snap-and-roll a two foot loin of the freshest tuna you can possibly imagine simply dislodged from the body. A couple more cuts to remove some unwanted pieces and he casually walked over and placed the loin on a bed of ice in front of OUR bulging eyes!
The Azorean fishing industry operates under a very rigorous set of guidelines regarding how, and how much, fish can be caught. This is accomplished through strict adherence to bycatch standards, “Dolphin Safe” guidelines and “Friend of the Sea” certification. These mandates, and the monitoring that accompany them, ensure that their industry remains essential, healthy and sustainable throughout the year as well as for generations to come.
Fishing in the Azores has existed since the islands were first colonized and today it is considered to be of historic, cultural, social and economic importance.
As stakeholders in the fishery industry the Almeida family carry on the tradition and respect for the ocean that has been practiced for hundreds of years.