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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

We knew enough to spend our first night in one of the grandest boutique hotels in Europe, the Tivoli Palácio de Seteais, in Sintra, 30 minutes from the airport. Not only is this vast opera set magnificently hallwayed and staircased, but the views from the porch of our room encompassed the budding valley below and the Atlantic beyond. And the bed, alone among the several we slept on, was soft! (Europeans don’t do soft.)

But picturesque and monumental as Sintra is (over here, an eighth-century Moorish castle; down there, the 14th-century Royal Palace; just beyond, another royal palace, this one 19th-century Gothic), it doesn’t do Bairrada pig. So the next morning we headed north. We were racing through the town of Mafra when the sight of the splendidly Baroque palacio demanded we stop. The palace looms over every other building in town and dwarfs a couple of nearby mountains as well. It’s so large, the king’s bedroom is more than two football fields away from the queen’s—and they were on friendly terms. It was built by the extravagant João V, purportedly in apology for his sexual excesses, which, if the palacio is any indication, must have rivaled those of Hugh Hefner, Catherine the Great, and Jude Law combined. The palacio’s fascinating "hospital" contains several beds that look more comfortable than most modern ones, and its extraordinary gem of a library houses 40,000 gold-embossed, leather-bound volumes, and splendid Rococo bookcases. Hundreds of bats are encouraged to live in the rafters, to preserve the condition of the collection naturally: they sleep by day and feast on book-eating beetles by night. The afternoon we visited, a wedding was in progress in the palace basilica, and from windows above, we watched the proceedings.

After two hours, now drunk on Baroque majesty, we heard the siren song of the swine grow louder. Rain descended. We drove—or sailed, as the downpour became a gale—for what seemed like eight hours and turned out to be…eight hours. Which meant we were too late for dinner. We pulled up to Estalagem Azevedo dos Leitões—freely translated, "The Azevedo’s Inn of the Little Pigs," so named because the Azevedo company that owns it also owns the largest suckling-pig factory in the area. The inn, which is in Mealhada, the pig-eating center of the Bairrada region, is a spanking-clean, blond-wood bargain. But, thanks to the storm and our own abominable sense of direction, we went to bed hungry. Would we ever get our Bairrada pig?

Yup—for breakfast. And the Azevedo version was everything Paolo had promised two years earlier: meaty, brilliantly dark, with crunchy skin.

The Mealhada region has been renowned for its thermal waters for centuries, and when a train system and the national road connecting Lisbon in the south to Porto in the north were completed at the turn of the 20th century, the area turned into an easily accessible spa destination. The many significant wine producers in Bairrada aggressively promoted tourism by offering a glass of wine and a meal of "Leitão de Bairrada."

Pigs were plentiful here in the 17th and 18th centuries because of the proliferation of corn farming in the area—but pork was considered peasant food. The rich would bring home game birds, wild boar, and deer from their hunts and show them off by serving them whole, so the peasants began serving their little pigs whole in emulation. Today, in an 18-mile area, there are some 80 restaurants serving this special pig—about one every two city blocks.

Red has always wanted to live in a palace. Fortunately, there was one in town, so we moved in.

The Bussaco Palace Hotel’s rooms may need a face-lift, but they are large and airy, and the grounds and façade are spectacular. Surrounded by 250 acres of verdant, peaceful forest crisscrossed with excellent walking trails and stone staircases, the palacio was erected in 1907 as a hunting lodge for the soon-to-be-exiled King Manuel II. The hotel not only bottles its own wines, but also served the best roast pig we’d had the whole trip. When one of the palacio’s bellmen, Antonio Gomes, heard my raves about the swine, he insisted on showing us how it was made. "There’s really no secret to a good pig—it’s all about how you cook it," Gomes said. "The ingredients are pretty much the same everywhere: Bisara pig, lard, and salt." The pig, skewered on a long pole, is turned many times by a seriously sweaty man, in an oven fueled by eucalyptus bark and grapevine. "Many people travel 250 miles just to eat lunch here on Sunday," Gomes said.

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