In 1933 the Mercado Central opened in the centre of Sao Paulo, establishing a covered venue for what had been a collection of street markets for all kinds of food. Harking back to the dominance of agriculture during the café com leite era ended by the Revolution of 1930, the agricultural products of Sao Paulo state were to be sold in what was a grand and decorative yet also a functional building.
The cornucopias supporting the Sao Paulo crest are echoed in the fruit-filled urns surmounting the keystone caryatids – could this be the origin of Carmen Miranda’s famous millinery?
The Mercado’s architect was Francisco de Paula Ramos de Azevedo (1851-1928), who ran one of the most prestigious practices of the time. He was the architect of what is now the Pinacoteca Sao Paulo gallery
a building which began life as a vocational school for the applied arts. The Mercado has also undergone changes of use – renamed the Mercado Municipal, and from 1969 transformed into a retail- and leisure-oriented space, while the sale of wholesale agricultural produce has moved to the larger, out-of-town-centre CEAGESP site at Vila Leopoldina. Like the Mercado, this site is also open almost every day.
The Mercado Municipal is a retail space where every conceivable kind of foodstuff is sold
including that essential for the feijoada pork and bean stew, pigs’ ears.
The food enthusiast can spend a happy hour or two shopping for the wares of vintners and butchers, fruiterers and fish-mongers (including piranha), sellers of herbs and spices, cheese-mongers, every kind of coster-monger … the variety of food is astonishing.
A mezzanine floor has been created inside the ample proportions of the market building. It has a good collection of restaurants of varied types, with a large common seating area crammed with chairs and tables, and a range of counters preparing the food bought to you by busy waiters. Going to the market is a family day out. In summer, the tables are cooled by large fans which spray misted water over the diners.
A striking feature is the series of stained glass windows on agricultural themes on the opposite side, above the food stalls.
Imported from Germany, they depict the raising of the produce on offer below. Idealised even for 1930, there is little sign of the agribusiness engine of the Brazilian economy of today. Nonetheless, they are charming. They’re difficult to appreciate at a distance – click on them to see them across your screen. More on the Mercado’s history at
What’s missing from this picture? We couldn’t smell any freshly baked bread, though there are some few stalls which sell bread, and some of the older stalls serving food downstairs are famous for their bologna (mortadella) filled bread rolls. Perhaps food hygiene prohibits baking anywhere except in the padaria. What was stranger for Brazil was not being able to smell freshly roasted coffee – we didn’t spot a single stall.
But you can visit any of six Nespresso shops in Sao Paulo, and more elsewhere in the country, where coffee is not so much a commodity as a high-margin luxury item, supporting the sale of expensive coffee-making machines which – truthfully – are nothing like as successful as the old Gaggia machine in any corner bar of Italian extraction. The staff are dressed in muted browns, the shop fittings are carefully co-ordinated, and you can serve yourself with capsule coffee. But that glorious smell is not in evidence there either. Strange country, Brazil.