I’m not in the habit of dedicating articles but today was too magical not to and, anyway, I’ve been on a journey that saw my curiosity break my own rigid rules time and again until I realised that none of us can grow without our roots. So, to Rijk and Peppie – thank you so much. This is for you and for all of us everywhere. Today’s wines are paired by Lisa Fontannaz, a South African living in Germany.
Suckling pigs have been around as long as pigs and pit cooking before pots and pans. Anyone who has ever sampled food prepared in this way has discovered a taste sensation which is, unfortunately, addictive. Yes, it is time and labour intensive but the method is so basic that anyone can do it if they don’t want instant gratification. Dig a hole, add loads of stones and make a massive fire which you allow to burn out. The stones are boiling hot, so line with fresh, slightly damp wood with which you get a smoky fiery hot charcoal and cover with stones, leaves, herbs, grit and carefully place your prepared meat so that it doesn’t burn the whole lot , cover again with a single layer of rock or stones and with whatever you dug up, wait for most of the day, dig up and serve immediately. Well, basically, that’s it.
Every country has its own version of “cuisine a la pit” but some of the most legendary and continuously-practiced examples can be found in the South Pacific. In Hawaii, it’s referred to as the luau. the Maori call it the hangi, Tahitians hima’a and in the Marquesas islands the umu. Ancient Peruvians referred to pachamanca and used an oven in the earth too (incidentally, this has served as an oven since man discovered fire one a half million years ago). And yes, it must have been a man – if you’ve ever watched men making a fire you will understand the deep, spiritual thing they have with a fire that need no words or explanations. I think the pit could have been food protection from or even a warning to nearby animals. In Polynesia we often see up to a dozen deliciously steam-baked pigs with the meat turning into a dense, tasty cream-flesh protected in a shell like covering, the spices giving character and allowing us to dream of ancient kings, adventures unknown and almost magical cultures of which we only dream – and then, only when we truly understand what the food wants to tell us this time.
Whilst these are all the most basic cooking methods, thus the most delicious, they do vary sufficiently to warrant comparison. Go here for an interesting read, where the “how to” problem is sorted out.
To make the Peruvian Pachamancha is the most basic and and I will included a modernized version here which can be built on or adapt to suit our own circumstance easily.
1 Suckling pig (Stefan, you may use a massive 5kg roast, but that would be missing the point), one and half liters good white wine vinegar, rough salt (like malden), pepper, garlic – whole cloves (in their skins) and as many as you like;
Dig a hole, about a meter deep and about 3/4 of a metre wide;
Fill with a bag of charcoal and put in 2/3 of the bag – the ground should be dampish, line with stones first.
Put properly prepared meat in any large container and pour over the vinegar, soak the skin for 60 minutes, turning twice.
Drain it, reserving a cup of the vinegar and rub skin with the salty Mexican type spice mix, ensuring that it is well salted. I stab the skin so the salt goes in well.
Place the garlic cloves on the inside and sprinkle with salt and freshly ground white pepper – use wild ginger if you can find it.
Wrap the pig for roasting. Stack three full layers of heavy duty aluminium foil, tearing off pieces that are about a meter longer than the pig on either side, greasing the inside of the foil with olive oil or butter.
Fold the foil around the pig to make a package by rolling the layers of foil together at the seams to make a very tight seal all around. When the meat is sealed, wrap it again tightly in another layer of foil, repeating another three times.
Start the charcoal in the bottom of the pit and as soon as ash starts to form, cover with a layer of mid-sized stones or a few bricks.
Set the wrapped pig on top and cover the meat, top and bottom with the rest of the charcoal to start over it, When the second layer of charcoal ashes over, fill in the hole with the excavated sand, stones or soil.
Allow to cook in the pit for 5-6 hours, longer for pigs bigger than 5 kilograms.
Dig up the meat, removing to a dish with two spatulas or flat spades, rest for 15 minutes while you clean the meat well, taking care not to burn yourself. Unwrap it partially. Check to see whether cooked by cutting into hind leg to see if white and falling off the bone and rib cavity also to see if the meat is white, shredding easily.
Classic Chardonnay with not too overpowering oak or even a Sherry–Oloroso, very aromatic and dry will go well with this.
I will use this method for all the “pit pigs” since it is doable in these modern times.
In Hawaii the kalua pig is always served at the Hawaiian luau. The pig is “dressed” and salted and placed in an imu ( a banana leaf-lined pit filled with very hot stones) where it is left for hours until smoky and falling apart.
The Cubans eat lechón (suckling pig) at Christmas Eve, often cooking the meat in the back-yard.
For the discussion on ‘spit pigs’ we begin in Sardinia, which is really in the middle of Mediterranean isolation and surrounded by the greenest of green seas for which oceanographers will have fascinating explanations but where Sardinians are acutely aware of God’s particular generosity to them. Sardinia always was desirable to marauders and thieves (since pirates and countries that ‘discover’ countries already belonging to some-one else are essentially thieves) has been occupied so often during its history, that it is often forgotten. The Carthiginians and Phoenicians attacked them, the Romans occupied them (it was only when Garibaldi had the bright idea of uniting all population groups within Italy that they became one country) and the Arabs overran the place. In Garibaldi’s defense I have to admit that he must have had good reason since the island caused continuous spats between Pisa, Genoa, the popes, Aragon, Austria and Savoy and in order for the poor Sardinians to survive in peace, Italy had to be one country and that irritation had to be sorted out for once and for all! I, however, am thrilled about all that upheaval because it reflects on their food, one of the most interesting, delicious and inclusive in the world and now the Italians argue about other things like what else Italy does better than anyone in the world. Since the renaissance began there do have a point.
Once upon a time there were shepherds in Sardinia and they lived in the mountains, traumatic for anyone but particularly so for any Italian. To be torn away from their extremely well equipped kitchens was almost as cruel as being torn away from their very families. However, like the Afrikaner nation they always seem to find a way of creating a feast from whatever they have left and this tragic event inspired men to cook on spits. Heartily worried about eating their only income, they looked up as they are inclined to do. Wild boar and pigs came to mind and even today the spit roasted suckling pig is a highlight throughout Italy at town festivals. I can only think of the carraxiu fom Villagrande in the Nuoro province that could be considered more special! (That’s a roasted kid, stuffed with a suckling pig, stuffed with a wild hare, stuffed with a partridge that’s stuffed with a little bird!) Some areas have the toro del ciabattino which puts that whole lot inside a calf – but I have never tasted it and unless I do, I can’t write about it. If anyone thinks it’s a hint for an invite, of course it is! ☺
Sardinian porchetto (spit roasted suckling pig) is made on any spit on a wood fire because the wood gives a definitive taste and creates a vital smoky flavour– if you use a combination of both it’s okay too. Freshly picked herbs are thrown in the fire and stuffed into the chest cavity. It is smoked and thus cooked over a very low heat. It has a toasted rice textured skin with meat as heavenly as only the Italians seem to manage.
At the annual Sagra del Maiale festival that celebrates pork, whole pigs are spit roasted over wood based fires, cut up and distributed to the whole village. A crispy skin enclosing buttery soft and succulent meat is the result. For those of you that haven’t been there, book your ticket now.
With these pigs, serve typical Sardinian wines. Cannonau, or a Monica di Sardegna. Both red wines that are happily chilled slightly in the heat.
Puerto Rico, one of the four larger islands that form Greater Antilles can be found in the Caribbean. Apart from the fact that their patron saint would have been my favourite if I were catholic, their spit roasted pork was given to them by the Arawak (Taino) Indians and you need only look in any anthropological encyclopedia to understand the contribution that would have been.
Lechon Asado then is roasted over a fire of large hot logs and hot stones. The skin is constantly basted with the juice of sour oranges and achiote (which is where the annatto seeds come from which are so often used in Mexican spice mixes), chiefly for colouring purposes. So use salt, finely sliced chilli’s and loads of annatto seed paste (or Mexican spice) in the sour orange juice and take turns in basting. Serve with rice, roasted sweet potatoes (I can never find plantains where I’ve been living), mountains of rice and a Puerto Rican fresh mixed salad.
The Greeks are not romantic about food. It seems to me that to them food is as much a part of the cycle of life as the discussion of pigs is important and the difference between galathenoi (suckling pig) and delphakes (adult pigs) common knowledge to a child. Even they acknowledge the superiority of the Sicilian pigs, but then the Greeks are inherently wise and ego never interferes with logic. They know, for example, that pigs are at their worst between spring and autumn and to be left alone. However, a six hour discussion on this subject can certainly not be put into writing by someone with one hand in use at the moment!
Gourounopoulo psito (spit-roasted suckling pig)
1 young suckling pig
Freshly ground black pepper
Serve a Bordeaux blend wine (a wine with a Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot mix) At least 2 or 3 make a Bordeaux blend or a Cabernet Merlot would, which also be good.
Make a wood fire, quite hot and find a pig-spit. Roast and stuff as we do all of the recipes but remember the fresh oregano in the coals and in the pig. I place fresh oregano, loads and loads of lemon peel and a few whole garlic cloves in the cavity, sew up and pack for the spit.
These are only a few countries. In my research that with the exception of countries where religious beliefs forbid the use of pork, all have recipes for pork on the spit! South Africa, Germany, the Americas, Australia to name a few.
So, why not dig a pit if you have no spit this weekend. It’s such fun and an economical way to feed masses of people – why even a village!