Thursday, July 29, 2010

And Now For Something Completely Different

I stutter. It's a speech impediment I've had for as long as I can remember speaking. The nature of the stutter has shifted over time. Originally it was mostly the letter "L" but now it's more often the letter "V" and "N." "D" has always been a tricky one which, given my name, has posed unique problems.

Since stuttering is both physiological and psychological, the severity of my impediment fluctuates and, while never fully absent, it has been in a manageable state since I was a teenager. It's least prevalent when I'm drinking and around friends, most prevalent when I'm in stressful environments. The great joke about stuttering is that it is almost always more pronounced when one is stressed out and nothing stresses the stutterer out more than a fear of stuttering and the fear of the reactions of others to the stutter. I will also say that I have known severe stutterers and fully acknowledge that mine has never been more than moderate and has never inhibited my ability to communicate significantly nor did it impede my academic success. It did, however, greatly inhibit my willingness to communicate greatly during my childhood and adolescence.

I hated to speak. I was terrified to speak. I knew that if I opened my mouth in any institutional situation, I would stutter and as a child I wasn't able to rationally comprehend the relative meaningless of a blocked consonant or prolonged vowel here and there. You stutter, everyone laughs at you. What's more terrifying to a nine year old than everyone laughing at you? At restaurants, I remember, I would slip away to the restroom and I would tell my mom or dad what I wanted to order "just in case the waitress came," neither wanting to suffer the embarrassment of asking outright for them to order for me nor the embarrassment of stuttering out "crab cake sandwich." I never introduced myself to people. I never struck up conversations with strangers. I did somehow manage to get through a summer theatre camp and be my middle school's spelling bee champion, however.

As a result of my fear of speaking, I learned to listen. I learned to listen very closely. Speech was my most precious commodity, when I did have to speak I wanted it to be as quick and effective as possible. I didn't have the luxury of being a recreational talker, bullshitting and gossipping and yammering on. I also cultivated a massive vocabulary and learned how to use it. If my tongue's getting caught on the "c" in "comprehend," let's try "understand" instead. "Requirements" tricky today? Let's go with "exigencies." English and its massive, flexible vocabulary drawing from several different linguistic traditions might be the most friendly to the stutterer.

Because of the preciousness I have for speech, I'm left sometimes with a feeling of contempt for those who waste it. Talking without meaning, words signifying nothing. Boilerplate nonsense and non-answers to questions. Conversations that are words into the ether, not true intercourse. Or my least favorite, answers that serve not to further the conversation but to push the respondent's own agenda. Dialogue is the only way to truth and dialogue doesn't exist without thoughtful question being met with thoughtful answer.

Because of my early life as 90% listener, 10% talker I'm left with a contempt (sometimes seething) for those who don't listen; for those people who latch on to three or four words and formulate a non-relevant response in their head before the speaker is even done asking his question. The art of conversation, the crucial give and take, doesn't work if people are in a hurry to speak and have an interest in only speaking their agenda, relevance be damned.

I ended up managing my stutter because I matured and realized it wasn't that big of a deal. The willingness to (mostly) not worry about it and plow ahead greatly reduced my stress over my stutter and therefore greatly reduced its prevalence. I had reversed the stuttering feedback loop and used it to my benefit.

While reviewing some recent videos of myself I realized that my stutter is still very much there and I'm sure at times it is distracting to others, but in the end there's little I can do about it. There's no cure for stuttering and of all the various (sometimes lengthy and expensive) treatments, acceptance has been shown to increase fluency the best. And it's totally free. So I'm happy and content in my current world of mild stuttering that I've been living in for about thirteen or fourteen years now. I'm told some girls think it's cute.

But I've maintained my respect for speech as well as the value I ascribe to it. Articulate speech communication is what sets us apart from the animals: utilize it with attention and care. Also, speech is meaningless in a vacuum so unless you're engaging another you're not actually speaking. I would encourage everyone to think about what they're saying and why: Are you talking for yourself or for others? Are you advancing discourse or just repeating known facts? Discourse in America has devolved largely to non-existence and it's time to take it back. As someone who has spent his entire life listening, there's a lot to be learned and it's the most powerful weapon you have.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Luis Pato, Leitao and Six Foot Baga Vines: Fear & Loathing in Bairrada

“It’s leitao.”

I stared at the plate in front of me. Crispy red skin. Gooey oozing fat. Moist, dripping meat. Was that a snout? No. Wait? No. At least, I don’t think so. Maybe?

So this was the legendary leitao of Bairrada, a balmy region of red clay and sand landscapes twenty kilometers inland from the Atlantic, an hour and a half south of Porto and four hours north of the Algarve, where pasty pudgy British tourists disembark every July to quickly turn a seared bright red, a modern sort of invading Lobsters replacing the Redcoats of colonial America. But what is it? It’s more than food. It’s a lifestyle. It’s regional pride. Every restaurant we sped past on the winding unnamed roads advertised “LEITAO” in massive letters. Or minimal letters. Or letters in between, but mostly massive letters. The dish is consumed with a religious devotion reserved for only the finest of the world’s regional dishes: okonomiyaki in the Kansai, poutine in Quebec, vodka and Red Bull in West Hollywood.

But what is leitao?

It’s a baby pig. A suckling pig. A piglet, sans striped singlet. It’s a six-week old pig, slaughtered and dressed fresh: the larger purveyors have pens of piglets on the property where the squeal and scurry contentedly before being zapped unconscious and disemboweled. Its body cavity is rubbed with a proprietary mix of lard and spices which vary from purveyor to purveyor but all involve some combination of salt, garlic and lots of pepper (both black and white). Some assaderos (as Leitao specialists are known, basically Portuguese for “grillmaster”) also inject that spice mixture between the skin and flesh. The piglet is unceremoniously skewered on a spit and suspended in a hot clay oven. The best leitao is fired in an oven made from the local red clay, whose temperature is judged by the color of its heated glow. Village gates in Bairrada are adorned with statues of young pigs. Should an uninitiated traveler barrel down the highway and notice such glorious homage to such pre-pubescent swine he might be concerned that there was some odd Wicker Man-esque shit going on here and virginal policemen best stay away, or at least avoid the bees.

The roast pig is then cut into numerous small pieces and served on a plate with boiled or fried potatoes, an obligatory side of green salad, and slices of orange to cut the fat after you’ve consumed a few pieces. Every piece is cut to preserve meat, bone, skin and fat. The skin, puffed from meat by the layer of fat, crackles like, well, like the best pork skin on the planet. Underneath the mostly liquid pork fat oozes around the flesh which was always moister than a nun on Easter; that’s no small feat considering the tiny-ness of the pigs and the heat of the oven. My favorite bits were the meaty squares cut from the flanks, though the pieces from around the rib cage were tender and flavorful.

Our host for this particular porcine excursion was Luis Pato, one of the “three popes” of Portuguese wine making. Not my term. Luis has been producing wine since 1980 when, then working as a chemist, he made wine from his father’s old Baga vines, aged them for four years in concrete vats because he couldn’t get a bottling line together, and then entered it into a Bairrada wine competition in London where it was promptly declared the best red wine in the region--not bad for a first effort. So Luis quite the chemistry game and entered the family business full time. He’s built a reputation not only as the pre-eminent vigneron but as one of Portugal’s most ardent ambassadors, embracing nearly forgotten varietals like Baga and Maria Gomes and turning them into some of the world’s best wines.

And if there’s a wine to drink with the delicious, crackling ripping obscenity of Leitao it’s Baga, either as a vinho tinto lightly chilled or the traditional accompaniment of cold espumante tinto, Portuguese red sparkling wine. The shining acidity and sturdy tannins cut through the fat and the wine’s cooked cherry fruit flavors compliment the peppery meat in the same way a good cherry compote rounds out a nice tenderloin. We visited Luis’ local where the massive piles of meat were neverending and the rotund diners left smiling back out to the vineyards to ensure there’d be grapes to replace what they’d drunk.

Luis was such a staunch proponent of Bairrada at a time when the grape was about to go extinct that he earned the sobriquet “Mr. Baga” which he wears with great pride. His vineyards are scattered throughout the region, including his Quinta do Ribeirinho grapes from vines planted by his father almost 50 years ago and a small plot of Baga vines he acquired that are well over 100 years old. This vineyard is located off the main thoroughfare down a rutty dirt road where, while en route, we passed a pair of policemen on horseback who had just scared away a prostitute. She had driven her car off the road with a john in tow to presumably get down to business, a common practice we were told for roadside “car prostitutes” in rural Portugal. After being forced to get out of the Suzuki 4x4 so it could clear a particularly nasty bump in the road, we found ourselves surrounded by the gnarled, ancient vines, some of which were well over six feet high.

In one sandy corner of mostly clay soil Bairrada, Luis has planted some Baga and Touriga Nacional on original European rootstock: because it is difficult for the phylloxera aphid to maneuver in sandy soil the vines are able to resist the pest. The very low-yielding grapes produce concentrated wine with more brambly fruit notes than the grafted vines.

Despite being Bairrada’s shining star, Mr. Baga didn’t use the DOC on most of his wines for a number of years, fighting the region’s administrators over its overly legislative attitude, which he believed was restricting many producer’s abilities to bring Bairrada wine making into the 21st century. Because of Luis’ efforts, the DOC made extensive revisions to its regulations and beginning with the 2008 vintage all of Luis Pato’s wines again bear the Bairrada DOC label.

Whether the regular “Casta Baga” Tinto 2007 or Baga Vinhas Velhas 2005, give the grape a try and uncork what is as much one iconoclast’s story as it is the history and culture of his region. And if you can, enjoy it with delicious, fatty, crispy, spicy leitao.

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.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

HFF Quickie: Highlights from Portugal

I'll write a more extensive essay about my travels, but in the mean time here are some culinary highlights from Portugal, an absolutely fantastic country.

Leitao: The signature dish of central Portugal, Leitao is a young (6-8 week) suckling pig rubbed heavily with a proprietary blend of black pepper, white pepper, and salt and then roasted in a special oven. Its crispy skin, tender meat, and copious fat paired with roast potatoes and sliced oranges is simply fantastic. Traditionally paired with tinto espumante, a red/pink sparkling wine made from indigenous Touriga Nacional or Baga, it's a delicious colon-clogging adventure.

Migas: Not a damn thing like the Spanish version, Portuguese Migas is peasant food cum laude. Stale bread crumbs sauteed in olive oil and/or pork fat and then mashed with cauliflower, garlic, and any of a number of vegetables, the texture takes some getting used to but the flavor is rich, dense and transcendent.

Perceves: The fabled gooseneck barnacles of Galicia, perceves are a distinctive regional treat. The barnacles themselves bear more than a cursory resemblance to iguana feet. You pinch the rubbery sheath, twist and pull it off to reveal the sweet white flesh underneath. Its texture is similar to lobster with a simply salty freshness.

Bacalhau: Fuck the Spanish, the Portuguese have salt cod fucking pwned. I had bacalhau only three different ways (they say there are over 300), but all three were delicious. First, we had a pretty simple bacalhau roasted with tomatoes and garlic--very tasty. The next preparation was pretty esoteric but really fucking good: the cod was topped with ham and pineapple and then baked in a rich cheese sauce. That might've been a particularly unique dish as no other Portuguese person we talked to seemed to know what that preparation was. Last, there was a bacalhau side dish consisting of shredded bacalhau baked in a cazuela with fried potatoes and cheese. Pretty much the best mac and cheese ever.

Black Pig: The same Iberian pig as the Spanish jamon iberico, when made into the Portuguese presunto it is the bomb. Tender and fatty, it's some of the best ham in the world. The black pig can also be roasted (impossibly tender)or fried with clams for the southern Portuguese dish porco a alentejana.

So yeah, some highlights. More detailed analysis to come.