Following Spain's Roast Suckling Pig From Farm To Table

From Puerto Rico to Cuba to the Philippines, roast suckling pig is a national dish — but its origins are in the ancient Spanish kingdom of Castile. Vegetarians, stop reading here: Cochinillo asado is a weeks-old piglet, cooked whole in a clay dish over an oak wood fire. The Spanish delicacy has made appearances throughout literary history, from Cervantes to Hemingway. The dish is legendary at Ernest Hemingway's favorite restaurant in Madrid.

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All summer we've been traveling the world hearing about what other cultures put on their grills. We call it the Global Grill. Today, reporter Lauren Frayer brings us a treat enjoyed throughout the Spanish-speaking world, but she offers her apologies. The Cochinillo asado isn't exactly cooked on a grill, but it is cooked on an outdoor fire in a clay pot. Lauren tells us the dish comes from the ancient kingdom of Castile in central Spain and has made literary appearances dating back hundreds of years.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) I am I, Don Quixote, the lord of La Mancha...

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: When Don Quixote and Sancho Panza famously stumbled upon a wedding in the Castilian countryside, the first thing they saw was a dozen suckling pigs sizzling over an oak wood fire.

What Cervantes described 400 years ago is a tradition of farm-to-table organic eating that had already dominated central Spain for centuries by then and still continues today with Cochinillo asado, roast suckling pig. It's a delicacy native to this windswept meseta, Spain's central table plateau, too dry for cattle or most agriculture. Instead, a weeks-old piglet fed only on its mother's milk, no solid food, is roasted whole - head, hooves and all - in a clay dish over an oak fire.

The pigs are raised on farms like this one about 60 miles north of Madrid.

As part of his family business, Victor Manuel shuttles truckloads of these little pigs from farms to restaurants in the capital, and he explains why I'm not allowed near some of the piglets' pens.

VICTOR MANUEL: (Through translator) A baby piglet is very delicate. Any bacteria or parasite could hurt them. They're so young, the newborns, that they haven't built up any natural defenses and drink only their mother's milk. We don't want to give them any vitamins or artificial hormones, so it's fundamental to keep the farm sterile to protect them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SQUEALING PIGLETS)

FRAYER: The piglets are born more than 30 a year to each mother and are slaughtered here, what used to be a day's ride on horseback to Madrid. Now it takes just over an hour by truck.

MANUEL: (Through translator) Once the piglets are killed at about four weeks old, we truck them to restaurants immediately, so you're eating an organic pig that was alive 24 or 48 hours ago.

FRAYER: Among the restaurants where the piglets end up: Botin, which bills itself as the oldest eatery in Madrid, opened in 1725. Botin made an appearance in Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises." The American writer loved the cochinillo here, which today costs about $30 a plate. Hemingway had his favorite table just around the corner from the kitchen.

Can you tell me what you're cooking here?

ROEL BASALM ALIM: Cochinillo (Spanish spoken). The oven is the oldest oven in the world. It is 300 years old. The oldest. This cochinillo, suckling pig.

FRAYER: Cochinillo also tells the history of the Spanish empire. The cook here, Roel Basalm Alim is from the Philippines, a former Spanish colony. He demonstrates how he learned to cook cochinillo back home.

ALIM: Cochinillo, dos horas. Dos horas.

FRAYER: It takes two hours total, he says. You butterfly the pig and season it with garlic, salt and thyme and then put it in the oven for about an hour, take it out to cool, he says, and then make the skin crisp with a final 30 minutes of cooking. Other former Spanish colonies like Mexico, Puerto Rico and Cuba all have similar national dishes.

Even Brazil has something similar via its colonial ruler, Portugal. These tourists are visiting from Brazil.

FERNANDA REZIND: We have same, we have (Speaking Portuguese) It's not as humid. It's more like dry.

JOSE REZIND: It's exactly the same.

F. REZIND: Do you think so?

J. REZIND: Yeah.

F. REZIND: No, I don't agree with my husband. (Laughing)

FRAYER: One thing Fernanda and Jose Rezind do agree on, though, they love cochinillo. Some say it tastes like roast duck or turkey, tender and moist.

F. REZIND: I think it tastes like pork, but it's very mild, very soft and very...

J. REZIND: Yeah.

F. REZIND: And it's very crispy, the skin, yeah. Delicious. It's gorgeous. It's very good.

FRAYER: For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid.

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