Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Lovely Leitao

In the center of Portugal, both in the granite towers of the Dao and more famously amidst the clay soils of Bairrada, is a signature regional dish. A signature regional dish among all the signature regional dishes of the world. A dish that is more ubiquitous in Bairrada than fat people in Mississippi and technical virgins at a Twilight screening. That dish? That dish is Leitao. Leitao is so ubiquitous that (honestly) every single restaurant in certain villages had "leitao" in the name.

So what is Leitao?

Leitao is a young suckling pig, no more than two months old. The skin and internal cavity is rubbed with a proprietary blend of salt, garlic and white & black pepper. A lot of white & black pepper. The pig is skewered on a spit and roasted in a hot clay oven, traditionally made from the local red clay of Bairrada (its name comes from barro, Portuguese for clay). The leitao is then chopped up and served on a platter with potatoes (traditionally boiled, more commonly now fried) and fresh oranges. The sweetness and acid of the oranges cuts the peppery fat of the pig.

The piglet's skin is crisp and puffed off of the flesh, which is rich, moist and tender with a serious black pepper spiciness. My favorite incarnation was served with peeled, thin sliced potatoes fried into a status somewhere between french fry and potato chip. The lesser versions of leitao did suffer from rubbery skin syndrome, but most of the time the skin was crunchy buttery crisp and the perfect vehicle for deliciousness.

In the end, despite the deliciousness of leitao, I was more inspired by the regional devotion to a classic dish that nearly every restaurant did expertly. It's something we miss out on. California is bigger than Portugal yet, other than a carne asada, nacho cheese and french fry burrito from San Diego, we have no significant ubiquitous regional cuisines. We should fix this problem and do it with great haste.

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