“Bring on the Pig!” Get to the pig already!” “Quit teasing!” I think I’ve heard it all from friends and family. I’ve dragged my feet for far too long and I am eternally sorry. Please, forgive me. If I haven’t previously mentioned, October is the craziest month for our family. Two kids’ birthdays, our wedding anniversary, and soccer, soccer, soccer. It’s complete and total madness. But I’m here to get to work, so without further adieu please allow me to BRING ON THE PIG!
After our night in Figueira da Foz, we set out in the morning, rented a car and hit the road. A crazy Swede at the wheel, we twisted and turned up roads overlooking cliffs sans any guardrails. I buried my face in my journal and attempted to record the previous night’s festivities. Once we steered away from the coastal road, I was more comfortable gazing out the window and enjoyed the small villages we traveled through. Kevin was the co-pilot and, with map in hand, he attempted to help Stefan navigate to Coimbra. Coimbra is a small town perched on a hillside and is home to a beautifully old and historical university (Velha Universidade). As we made our way through the little villages, Stefan would occasionally pull off the road and stop so we could take in the rolling countryside views. At one such stop we all got out of the car and decided to have a walk around. No cars, people or sounds other than the bugs and birds. To the right side of the road was an electric fence surrounding several rows of grapevines (see above). I assumed these were either Touriga Nacional or Baga grapes because these are the most common varieties grown in the Bairrada region. Local growers harvest the grapes and sell them to wine producers. Just beyond the vines was a row of trees – olive trees! To the left side of the road was a small field of corn fronted by a large tree. I noticed several nut pods on the road and picked up one. We didn’t immediately recognize what sort of nut it held and we all ventured a guess. Kevin cracked it open and inside we found an almond. I could’ve died happy right there and then because this place was truly heavenly. The warm sun and cool air and all these beautiful fruits surrounding us, well, to say I was giddy is an understatement. I hated to leave but we were on a mission to find the pig and had to get back on the road. I bid farewell to the almonds, grapes and olives and we headed out once again.
As we traveled towards Mealhada, we noticed many signs for the highly regarded leitao assado lining the roads – We were nearing Pig Country. I learned of Mealhada and leitao assado after reading an article from The New York Times online archive about it and a restaurant named Pedro dos Leitoes, the oldest and grandest in town. Leitao assado is roasted suckling pig. The piglets are not quite two months old when they are slaughtered. We arrived in the center of town and quickly found Pedro dos Leitoes. How could we miss the large stone sculpture, out in front of the building, of a mama pig and the behinds of little piglets?
Immediately inside the restaurant is a long counter for take-out orders. To the left is a large dining room for smokers, and to the right an equal-sized dining room for the rest of us. We were quickly seated and soon greeted by a very friendly server who helped us order drinks and wine. The wine, a 2001 Escolha dos Sócios, was a phenomenal local red blend. We looked at the menu, and they did offer chicken and veal in addition to the pork. But really, we were there for one thing and one thing only: leitao assado. We ordered 1Kilogram (2.2 lbs) for all four of us and they recommended their lightly-dressed salad and house made potato chips (they have these chips everywhere and they are so good). Not long after, a large pewter platter arrived loaded with chunks of pork. Then, the clouds parts and angels began to sing in a celestial choir as the sun shown down… Oh, sorry. In my mind this really happened. Seriously though, it was just gorgeous. Words escape me but, feast your eyes on this:
We spent the next half hour sipping wine and eating every last bit of tender, juicy pork and crunching on the crispy skin. We barely touched the salad and chips for fear they would fill our bellies and we’d have, GASP, no room for all of the pork. The pork was peppery and unbelieveably tender and they served it with a garlic sauce (I think it was just the rendered seasoned lard). At some point I had to take an injection of insulin and I saw the server see me and she approached me later and, with her limited English, she asked me if I was “diabetica”. I said yes and she got this pained expression on her face and said, “so complicata”. I just smiled and said “it’s not so bad”. Interestingly, I think this turned out to be our ticket to what was the highlight of my entire trip to Portugal.
After we had finished and paid our bill we got up to leave and our server (I can’t believe I didn’t get her name) came over to us and said, “My English, not good… you want to see” and with that she pointed towards the kitchen. I nearly fainted. I nodded eagerly and thanked her a million times. She led us through the plating area and back to the ovens. There she introduced me to an English-speaking cook and he explained that the piglets are cooked for an hour in the ovens where they use eucalyptus bark to heat to high temperatures. He showed us two pigs that had just been removed from the ovens.
They seemed so small, compared to what I’m used to seeing at a pig roast in the States. Corny as it sounds, I had chills. I was just so honored that they chose us to share this with. Our server then took me over to another room where there were little pigs on spits with their bellies sewn shut. She explained to me (her English was better than she gave herself credit for) that they stuff the cleaned piglets with a mixture of lard, garlic, salt & pepper.
She explained more about the process and then grabbed my hand and took me to the walk-in cooler where there were more piglets hanging on hooks, fresh, awaiting to be prepped and roasted. It was then that I had a brief sense of guilt and sympathy for these piglets. I reassured myself that if the animals are treated with respect and dignity and they are given a good life while they are living, then it’s okay. Pedro dos Leitoes employs a full time veternarian who overseas the pigs’ care and their slaughter (they are quickly electrocuted). Even typing this now, I have that same sense of guilt but I do believe that in a very modern and technologically-advanced way, this is nature. I also thought it was important for me to see the behind-the-scenes operation as it was a way of showing my respect for the animals and what they provide us.
She then took us to the area where the pigs are coralled and then electroctuted. There were no live piglets at the time we toured and I was somewhat glad for that. She lead us back out front and I gave her a big hug and thanked her a million times more. Kevin gave her a little something for her troubles and then we said our goodbyes. We loaded back into our car and headed north towards Porto, our last leg of the trip.
The next day, in Porto, Stefan found an outdoor market that he knew I would enjoy seeing. This, for me, was a look inside the Portuguese culture. This decrepit building, in some places held up by scaffolding, had everything a cook could want – and more. Mounds of fresh vegetables and fruits. I’ve never seen so much kale and greens in one place. Seafood including; fresh eels, octopuses, prawns, clams, mussels, etc. Every kind of sausage you could imagine, including those scary blood sausages. Fresh bread, flowers and nuts. Live chickens, roosters, pidgeons and rabbits, caged and for sale - for dinner, not pets.
After visiting the market, we headed across the magnificent Dom Luis I bridge which has two levels. I understand that it was engineered by a disciple of Eiffel, which makes perfect sense given it’s appearance. We visited Sandeman Cellars and walked through their small museum. Outside the cellars was a cafe and we were taking it all in when all of the sudden a scuffle broke out right in front of us. A large group of men were chasing another man and a woman was crying. From what we gathered, the lone man had hit the woman and the other men were chasing him to administer a little vigilante justice - Portuguese style.
Nearby we found a little restaurant on a side street that was packed with locals – a good sign. As we walked to our table, Elsie and I noticed an older woman eating a bean dish that looked so tasty. We found it on the menu, feijoada, which is pork and sausage with beans. We ordered it to share and it was exactly what we wanted. As we ate, though, we noticed these square pieces of spongy something. I poked around at a piece before I had the lightbulb moment: tripe. This was our last day and I had reached my limit of food exploration. I shuddered at the thought of eating this stuff. Now, mind you, I’ve had beef tongue carpaccio and could still feel the rough taste buds, but this was a different kind of freaky. The beef tongue I had at Per Se in Manhattan, Thomas Keller’s famed restaurant. That lunch, at $1200 dollars for the two of us, was the meal of a lifetime so I wasn’t going to not eat any of it. This, however, was stomach in a strange place after a week of strange. I was just saying “no” to the tripe. That’s when Stefan helped himself to a piece, ate it, and then went back to whatever it was he had on his own plate. I grilled him, “What’d it tast like?” “Taste for yourself” he responded, “or you’ll regret you didn’t sieze the moment.” Damn! He was right. He knew exactly what to say to me to get me to try it. So, I tried it and it tasted of the bean dish, which is to say it was good. The texture, on the other hand, was spongy and bumpy and disgusting.
That evening we did a little shopping and picked up some gifts for the kids. We were in a shopping mall and we took the escalator up and at the top was a food court area. There, in front of us, was a Pizza Hut and a McDonalds. Kevin and I looked at one another and without a word we headed for Mickey D’s. I know, it’s shameful. Why am I even sharing this with you? I told Kevin, as we ate our burgers and fries, that I would take this to the grave. But ya know, sometimes Mickey D’s is a necessary evil – this was one of those times.