Pork may be having its moment in the American spotlight, but it's a trip to Portugal that triggers one (hungry) man's burning obsession.
Juliette Borda On the road in search of the best pork
| Credit: 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.

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.

Red and I carried our stomachs into the attractive little town of Mealhada the following day in a wheelbarrow. While walking the EN1 road—a noisy, clangy, crowded strip favored by truckers—we lost track of the number of restaurants with neon signs showing a pig lanced with a pole. I practically forced Red into Restaurant Pedro dos Leitões for a porcine lunch, then, as she started preparing divorce papers, into Rei dos Leitões ("The King of the Suckling Pigs," founded in 1947) for dinner. Both served pork that was deep and dusky, impossible to confuse with the other white meat.

Despite having five meals of pig in two days, I realized it would all be incomplete without a refresher from Negrais, so I sheepishly asked Red if she’d accompany me on one last gluttonous adventure.

"We’ve got to," she relented, and off we sped down the A1, the only road on which you can’t get lost. Paolo, our waiter from two years earlier, couldn’t believe we’d returned—and in such a rush.

"We’ve only got 30 minutes or we’ll miss the train to Madrid," I told him dramatically, and he immediately produced a platter. Mmm, superb. The chief difference between the Negrais and Bairrada versions is that the former is butterflied and the sauce loaded with pepper, and the latter cooked whole and served with a sauce so salty a tablespoon will send you running for the nearest waterfall. Which is better?That’s easy: both.

Paolo rushed us out the door after 31 minutes, our fingers still greasy, jamming some napkins and a bottle of local wine under my arm for our journey. Red and I zipped through a landscape more difficult than most video games and made the train. Then, feeling like pigs, we slept all the way to Madrid.

Jonathan Reynolds is a former food columnist for the New York Times. His new memoir is Wrestling with Gravy: A Life, With Food.

When to Go

Portugal is warmest from June through September. However, it’s wise to avoid August, when the Portuguese take their annual holidays, and resorts are full.

Where to Stay

Tivoli Palácio de Seteais 10 Rue Barbosa do Bocage, Sintra; 351-21/953-3200; www.tivolihotels.com; doubles from $263.

Bussaco Palace Hotel Mata do Bussaco, Lusa; 351-23/193-7970; www.almeidahotels.com; doubles from $222.

Estalagem Azevedo dos Leitões Rue São Domingos, Pedrulha; 351-23/120-9800; doubles from $80.

Where to Eat

O Caneira 171 Avda. General Barnabé A. Ferreira, Negrais; 351-21/967-0905; dinner for two $27.

Restaurant Pedro dos Leitões Rua Alvaro Pedro, Sernadelo; 351-23/120-9950; dinner for two $40.

Rei dos Leitões 17 Avda. da Restauração, Mealhada; 351-23/120-2093; dinner for two $40.

What to Do

Palácio Nacional de Mafra Mafra; 351-26/181-7550; www.ippar.pt/english.

Tivoli Palácio de Seteais

Originally the 18th-century residence of the Dutch consul, the property opened as a hotel in the 1950’s. A Neoclassical building with frescoed rooms, gilded antiques, and famous guests (Catherine Deneuve; John Malkovich), the place had nevertheless seen better days. One year and 40 specialists later, none of the splendor suffered in favor of a meticulous restoration (complete with updated in-room technology and marble baths).

Palacio Nacional de Mafra

Rei dos Leitões

Restaurant Pedro dos Leitões

O Caneira

Estalagem Azevedo dos Leitões

Bussaco Palace Hotel