There is something mystical about a weekend away, at least for me. I become exhausted from the endless cement scenery, especially when the summer weather screams for full-on nature, for fresh air, for childishly play in the sun. Thus, taking a few days to enjoy the scrub brush forests of Tarragona that seep aromas of thyme and rosemary sounded heavenly – and oh, it was! One couldn’t ask for a more beautiful afternoon to celebrate a pig roast among friends high in La Mussara.
La Mussara is the highest peak of the Serra de la Mussara – a subrange of the Prades Mountains – located just an hour south of Barcelona as the crow flies, or 3 hours depending if your GPS is bound for new horizons, as ours apparently was, and just east of the famous slate covered grounds of the Priorat. It was a chance to break out our camping gear, hike among the rock face, dive in freezing cold ponds and relax under a blanket of stars. Inhabited by a few diehard locals, the majority of the area is populated by mosquitos, rabbits, butterflies, and our favorite friend, the wild boar.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the wild boar, it’s far from a creature you’d love to cuddle up close to on a plushy couch. An ancestor of the domestic pig, it can picked out of a line-up by its pointy tusks, large frame, hard bristly hair and a grunt that can be heard from meters away. The wild boar is commonly found throughout the Iberian Peninsula, except in the arid south, where little water is found, and the Balearic and Canary islands – evidently pigs don’t swim that far. And as it has few natural predators in Spain, other than the Iberian wolves in northern Spain, their numbers are incredibly large, despite the hunting of approximately 60,000 – 100,000 animals per year.
Catalunya especially has suffered horribly over the years, as the overpopulation of boars have become a serious agricultural issue, not to mention an urban issue as they’ve come dangerously close to residential areas. I can fully attest to this phenomenon having had an encounter with a litter of piglets a few years back in the Serra de Collserola who were intrigued by both my scent and size (piglet size that is). Though I survived unscathed, it did provide me with a very serious respect for our snorting brethren, who are not only tough on the inside, but also on the outside, as experienced by our Chef du Jour, Kathleen Engelhardt.
Kathleen came to Spain for a culinary change – a desire to see the world from a different angle – complete with new ingredients, recipes, techniques and styles. “I have worked with some amazing chefs that have introduced me to most of the classics Spain has to offer. There are just certain foods you wouldn’t “normally” see on typical American menus: things like octopus, pig/beef cheeks, and the vast array of pickled shellfish, which if done properly, are delicious.” Currently, the owner of Jezebels clandestine dining, she has gained a significant following for her cutting edge cuisine, fresh approach and desire to experiment with whatever is thrown at her. Unfortunately for Kathleen, she had no idea what experimentation until she met Silvia Camacho and her wild boar.
Silvia is a dear friend and owner of V&N Cellars - a Barcelona based company that is exporting wines from across Spain. In her gung ho spirit, she and her husband not only hosted the roast a few weekends back at their stunning cabin propped at 1055 meters above sea level, but was also the provider of the freshly shot wild boar, hunted by her neighbors who gladly exchanged the boar for use of her land. Mind you, her neighbors had to secure a special permit to hunt the boar outside of the season which generally runs from September to February, but as mentioned previously, the boar population is so numerous that permits aren’t very difficult to secure. Hence, Silvia’s idea was simple, create a true locavore meal where she would: find a freshly hunted wild boar, ask a daring chef to take on meal, and source the remainder of the ingredients from the area, including: vegetables, cheese, wine and meats.
Allow me to digress for a minute to talk about the locavore experience. It hits hard upon a belief structure I hold dear, but have yet to truly experience: seeing the meat I consume, killed. When Silvia first invited us to the roast, I imagined that very same boar that chased me down a mountain, shot, and potentially, suffering. It’s not the death aspect that bothers me, it’s watching someone else’s pain. I cannot stand seeing an animal, or a human, suffer. I feel as if someone grabbed my heart and began twisting it until every part of me wants to ease their suffering. However, I’m not naive enough to believe that suffering isn’t a part of life, and to be truly be part of the food cycle, one must see the food you eat, die – well, at least that’s my opinion. And to be honest, I was sad that I couldn’t be with the hunters the week before hunting the boar, if only to face a fear, but alas, maybe one day.
When I asked Kathleen how she felt when the massive slabs of boar were dropped off at her place, she emphasized that it was daunting, both because she had never cooked a wild boar before and due to its sheer size. “Once I sorted out the space in my fridge, my main concerns were leeching and brining the meat properly, cooking it long enough and at the right temperature on the grill and making sure the boar taint wouldn’t linger with the finished product. I also wanted to prepare it 2 ways, smoked legs and pulled pork with the haunches. In my experience, there is nothing better than taking a wild animal and throwing it on a grill.”
Although I can’t relate to this feeling in the least, being a hypocritical meat eating vegetarian, I can relate to the challenge. When you have a base knowledge of a skill and someone throws a curveball your direction, there’s a secret competitive spirit that sneaks out and screams, bring it on! And so Kathleen did.
Spain can boast of its wide variety of wild boar recipes. From stews to ribs to roasts, there is no shortage of ways you can both prepare it. We can’t tell you the number of ways we’ve experienced it, sausage being the most common, but its prolificacy can be seen throughout the peninsula. In Kathleen’s case, she chose to brine some of the meat in buttermilk and mustard, and the rest in a peach and tomato brine. Both were delicious, although I personally preferred the former, especially when paired with the Mencia made from 50 year old vines from Bierzo – which albeit isn’t “local” it was fabulous! Add a small chunk of the grilled eggplant covered in a garlic yogurt sauce, a stunning tomato salad, roasted vegetables, cow cheese produced up the road, and enough fresh fruit to bury Carmen Miranda. It was a weekend of pure gluttony, ending well into the morning with Port and enough belly laughter to scare away any wild boar that dared to come close to our campsite.
In short, the weekend was fantastic. As many city dwellers are well aware, there is something sacred and cathartic about leaving the city to enjoy a few days of fresh air, new friends, great food and wine, and plenty of camaraderie. To take time away from technology, creating impromptu games that require creativity and conversation (remember those), while enjoying a glass of wine is really what the culture of wine is all about. It reminds us that in life, there is nothing more important than community, and no better way to share it than with table full of food and libations to pick and nibble at until the wee hours of the morning.
That said, have you ever been part of a hunt or slaughter: experiencing the process of killing, cleaning and serving the dish you consumed? And if so, how did it feel (and taste!)?