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Driving Portugal | The Year of the Pig

Juliette Borda On the road in search of the best pork

Photo: Juliette Borda

It was good to be back. The last time my wife, Red (then, not my wife), and I visited Portugal, some two years ago, the weather was frequently rainy, but this time cloudless skies welcomed us, with timid zephyrs heralding the beginnings of spring. On the earlier trip, we stayed at the dramatic Fortaleza do Guincho, a former fort right on the Atlantic just south of Lisbon, near the seaside town of Cascais. We read books and ate most of the fish in the ocean. On the very last day of our visit, fully seafooded out, a waiter at Restaurante O Faroleiro—the best of the local restaurants, where the fish is enticingly displayed in a rowboat filled with ice—suggested we drive northwest to a town called Negrais to sample the regional specialty, the furthest swing of the pendulum from ocean products, a roast suckling pig.

My taste buds sprang to attention. In the pre-Atkins, fat-terrified 1980’s, farmers in the United States were pressured into coming up with "the other white meat" and meddled with pigs’ genes, resulting in pork that ceased to be its once-resplendent self. The other white meat was blander than Wonder bread, tougher than string, and tasted worse than the chicken it was trying to ape. So I was piqued by the possibility that a less healthful but more delectable, infinitely more authentic version might still be within my grasp.

As befits a country so geographically inspired that it (arguably) discovered the New World, wrested the Indian spice trade from the Venetians, and gave birth to Magellan—all within a single century—Portugal’s roads are labyrinthine and poorly marked, on the assumption, I guess, that everyone is a born navigator. We aren’t. The 20 mile drive to Negrais took us two hours—though they were picturesque ones, along undulating green hillsides dotted with old castles and forts. Once we made it onto the town’s dirt roads, past the underfed stray dogs and squawking poultry hopping outside dilapidated one-story houses, we found the juiciest, most intensely flavored roast pork in the country, probably the continent, possibly the world. So pervasive is the dish that you can even order it to go at Rosa’s, in the middle of town: freshly cooked, accompanied by a wildly peppery sauce, and wrapped in a cardboard box, like a pizza. We had pork for lunch and again for dinner, as much as we could eat while retaining girdle size and a modicum of gentility. The suckling pigs—no more than 17 pounds—were butterflied, then slowly roasted in a wood-burning oven, so that the meat retained a luscious depth of flavor, goosed with a little smoke, while the skin became delightfully crackly. As we waddled out the door after dinner at O Caneira, a jolly, brightly lit spot named after a local footballer, a solicitous waiter named Paolo asked, "You like?"

"Best roast pig I’ve ever had," I said, and Red nodded vigorously.

"You should try the one north."

"You mean there’s better pig than this?"

Paolo shifted his weight nervously, afraid he might be executed for treason if he admitted such a thing could exist. "Bairrada," he whispered, sotto voce, before ushering us into the street.

For the next two years, my wife and I plotted and schemed for a way to get back to Portugal for a forkful of Bairrada pig. Friends laughed when we said we were hoping to go abroad just to eat a barnyard animal, but this was from a celestial barnyard. And recently, Red and I got back.

Although this meant a cramped flight by way of Paris, manned by Air France’s haughtiest, the indifferent service made us appreciate even more the cheerfulness of every single Portuguese we met over the next week.

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