Go the whole hog with suckling pig
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“Size very much matters here,” says Ferdinand “Budgie” Montoya, chef and founder of the Filipino bistro Sarap in London’s Mayfair. We are surveying the 5kg carcass of a suckling pig, which is compact enough to sit within a medium-sized baking tray. Any bigger, frankly, and it wouldn’t fit in the oven. Montoya, who was born in the Philippines and grew up in Sydney before moving to London in 2012, is making the classic Filipino dish lechon (or roast piglet), often the centrepiece at family celebrations. Despite being on the small side, this piglet will feed up to eight.
One of the most popular recipes for lechon, from the province of Cebu, involves stuffing the pig with aromatics (garlic, spring onion, lemongrass) and cooking the animal over charcoal. Montoya is preparing an upscale version, using a piglet sourced from Segovia in central Spain. Compared to a full-grown pig, the meat is sweeter and much more tender from being fed on milk.
With the pig’s innards removed, Montoya starts by cutting out the ribcage and backbone. He then sprinkles the insides with cane vinegar, soy sauce, salt, pepper, garlic and ginger powders (“like a rub to flavour the flesh”) before inserting a row of four bruised lemongrass stalks and red chillies. Departing from tradition, he stuffs the piglet with adobo rice, which has been cooked in stock made with pig-trotter braising juices and ham hock among other ingredients, then mixed with garlic, spring onions and coriander. After trussing the pig, he rubs its skin with cane vinegar, seasons with salt and slides the animal into the oven to cook at 160C for three hours. “If you raise the temperature at the end the skin puffs up,” he says of the thick, crunchy crackling most Westerners expect. “By keeping the temperature low, you get amazingly succulent flesh and a glass-like crispy skin, which is what we call crackling.”
Roast suckling pig features in many cultures. Around Portugal and the Basque country, the tradition is to season it with salt and pepper and cook without stuffing, slow-roasting the animal to such tenderness that you can carve the meat with a plate. In Sweden, spädgris is stuffed with fruits such as apples and plums. In Germany, spanferkel is marinaded in a garlic, paprika and mustard glaze. Wherever you find it, the dish evokes a sense of occasion and the conviviality that comes from gathering around a whole animal.
Restaurateurs put it on their menu for precisely that reason. A few doors down from Sarap, you can find an excellent version at Spanish restaurant Sabor, where the suckling pig is cooked in a wood oven and served with warm potatoes and green salad. At nearby Bocca di Lupo, the “maialino” is roasted on a bed of carrots and fennel, with Bologna potatoes and onions added later, then perhaps grapes or braised chestnuts when deglazing the pan. Further afield, St John offers a larger version (“more teenage than suckling at around 14kg,” says chef director Jonathan Woolway), where the pig is stuffed with onions cooked down “in copious red wine” and tumbled with bread, sage and garlic.
“Decadence” is the word Bocca di Lupo’s Jacob Kenedy uses to describe the dish. “Theatricality” is Woolway’s. For Montoya, it’s a “showstopper” and a “conversation starter” that “sells itself” as every customer in the restaurant turns to watch the pig being brought out. “The majority of customers ordering it now are ones who have eaten here before, seen the dish and come back with friends,” he says.
The plating up is a performance in itself. After three hours in the oven, the pig is carried to the carving block and chopped up in full view of the customers with a cleaver. The rice is mixed with truffle paste with extra shavings on top, then served with parcels of meat, a soy sauce-vinegar dipping sauce (or sawsawan) and a carrot, kohlrabi and green papaya pickle, whose sweet-sourness and tangy-sharpness cut through the fatty richness of the flesh. The meat is sweet, juicy and porky, with crackling as thin and flaky as filo. I can’t help piling on seconds, then thirds.
As a kid, Montoya looked forward to special occasions precisely for the feasts: “If a birthday or christening was coming up, I knew there would be lechon and I couldn’t wait.” Now he hopes to engender the same relish in his customers. “I want people to be planning their visits, to be crossing off days on the calendar and to come in ready,” he says. His suckling pig is worthy of the biggest appetite.