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Leitão Assado da Bairrada with Tinto Espumante: A Truly Sensory Experience

Two weeks ago, my boyfriend and I decided to take a weekend holiday up North to Guimarães, though each of us seemed to have different intentions for going. I wanted to visit all the wineries of Minho and enjoy a series of tastings, while he just wanted to relax and take it easy. In the end, he won since all of the wineries were closed for the August holiday; but the very Friday night we drove up, I was able savor as dish that I have been waiting a year to taste and ended up enjoying one of the best meals I’ve ever had!

If you do decide to drive up north from Lisbon, mostly likely, you’ll be taking the Estrada National, or National highway, which is about the only major highway in the area. The highway goes right through the town of Mealhada in the region of Bairrada, a small town but popular throughout the country for its Leitao Assado da Bairrada. What is this? Well, its the most succulent suckling pig that you’ll find anywhere! Actually, it’s not quite a suckling pig; the piglets used are between a month and a month and a half old and have been weaned, weighing an average of 6 to 10 kilos. Originally from towns of Covões
and Cantanhede, about 10km east, Leitão Assado has been regarded as the richest gastronomic traditions of the region and Mealhada takes pride in roasting their acorn fed piglets in brick ovens fueled by the aromatic eucalyptus bark. The result is a soft and intensely flavorful meat that flakes right off the bone, accompanied by very crispy, golden-orange skin. Additionally, they drizzle a very strong and spicy black pepper sauce and serve it with orange slices. This combination of soft and crunchy, citrus and spice in my mouth is quite a unique sensory experience and delicious!

As if this wasn’t enough, I had noticed when we sat down at the restaurant, every table had champagne flutes. This is definitely not something you find often at local restaurants in Portugal. The restaurant featured Portuguese sparkling wine, Espumante, including an Espumante Tinto, or sparkling red wine, as a splendid pairing for the characteristics of the Leitão . I was immediately drawn to the Espumante Tinto, slightly similar to the fairly popular Italian sweet sparkling red, Brachetto D’ Acqui, which has a bright ruby color, but this Espumante Tinto from Quinta do Ortigo was a Brut and quite a dark purple color that added to its mystery.

And as Cava is supposed to pair well with spicy food, so did this Portuguese sparkling wine. The bubbles and the chilled serving temperature was like a cool, refreshing wave in my mouth that both contrasted the black pepper sauce and complimented the citrus flavors of the oranges. Normally, this is where sparkling wine stops for me, but since this was a red, it also had tannin and a silky, dark fruit and plum flavor to compliment the smooth textures and flavor of the meat. My, what a little malolactic fermentation can do for a sparkling!

I loved every part of this meal, and the weekend could have ended there for me as I was completely satisfied to have finally experienced such a memorable Portuguese dish that wasn’t fish; alongside, a wine that is a rarity to the rest of the world. And as we continued our drive up North, I fell into a deep sleep with a smile on my face.

To enlivening our senses,

Andrea Smith

Photo attribution by Richardzinho

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  • ryan

    I'm hungry now!

  • Reb

    We also stopped on the way from Porto to Lisbon and had this in Bairrada. It is really very very good.

  • Justin

    Sounds delicious. I wish I'd known about these suckling pigs when we passed through that area a couple of weeks ago. I'm also looking forward to my first try of Portuguese sparkling wine…

  • Dylan

    Such descriptive food writing. My mouth actually began to water and I've already eaten dinner. That looks absolutely delicious, the description of the crispy citrus skin reminds me very much of chinese-style duck I've had in the past. This meal sounds like an absolute balance of flavors. When my life takes me to Mealhada, I hope to take my appetite with me.

  • Gabriella Opaz

    Justin, although you won't have an opportunity to taste the Leitão Assado da Bairrada, you will have the opportunity to eat suckling pig of La Rioja this Saturday at the conference. So at least we can wet your appetite until your next trip to Portugal :-)

  • Andrea Smith

    Hahaha I had the same reaction when I was writing it! I'm glad you enjoyed it, it truly was a diverse yet balanced set of flavors in that meal, hope you get the chance to experience it sometime!

  • Milton

    Justin: In your first try of Portuguese sparkling wine you should try Bairrada. We have de best sparkling wines in Portugal! :) Andrea: Portuguese cuisine as a lot more than fish dishes! Even though fish and specially cod fish dishes are very popular, meat dishes are more important in special ocasions. I'm a new small non-commercial winemaker form Bairrada.

  • Andrea Smith

    Hahaha yes it's very true! It seemed that way to me in the beginning since I was seeking out all the fresh fish I could after having a far less comparable selection in the US! But now I'm all about the meat and definitely want to go back to Bairrada soon to try some more Espumantes :)

  • Justin Roberts

    Brilliant! I'm looking forward to the conference – and the cochinillo!

  • Justin Roberts

    Hi Milton. I hope to try some Bairrada espumante soon! it sounds great.

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  • Roger

    where can we get good authentic leitao or frango assada (pirirpiri) in the west country UK ?

  • Rogern

    leitao and/or frango piripiri in Somerset – where please ?

  • http://www.catavino.net Ryan Opaz

    I wish I knew! Will pass this on though and see if anyone can help!