Here’s a blast from the past. One of my favorite pieces of wine writing.
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 they 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 4×4 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.