Growing up, Portuguese kid stew was as ordinary to me as beef stew was to my American friends. Whenever there were mentions of “cabrito,” my smile lit up! Around this time of year, my younger self would be jumping for joy around my mother’s kitchen, since this was often the meal of choice for Easter. Chocolate bunnies didn’t excite me at all, but this sure did. Let’s just say I was a foodie way before I had a clue as to what the word meant.
The pieces of kid would soak up the overnight marinade it sat in unlike any other meat I had ever tasted. Years later, I learned it had to do with goat in general being drier than most other meats—an ideal characteristic for marinate absorption. The kid stew, “Chanfana (or Ensopado) de Cabrito” in Portuguese, consists of drowning bone-in pieces of kid in “Vinha d’Alhos,” garlic, red wine, vinegar, bay leaves and spices. The next day, the mounds of meat are slow cooked until über tender and served with boiled baby potatoes.
How could this ever be topped for me? Turns out, it could. In the same region where my grandparents’ tiny village in rural Portugal lies, the Beira Baixa, is a place in the mountains that serves up a Medieval-style roasted kid that’s magic for goat meat-lovin’ folks like me. Called “Cabrito Estonado,” loosely translated to “Kid Undone,” this refers to how the animal is submerged in scalding water after the slaughter, making it possible to pluck its fur (or undo it) without skinning it. The skin is what makes this dish special; it crackles in the oven à la suckling pig.
On my trips to Portugal, I had been asking around if others had tasted this dish. Most had no clue, which of course further fanned my curiosity. Forget gluttony, tasting this dish and writing about it had become a goal. Some might call it … ahem … an obsession. For one reason or another, however, I kept missing the boat on devouring this dish. But last fall, it finally happened. I learned that my cousin had restored a rural, schist home (two more are in progress) called Casas da Encosta for tourism in his mother’s village of Cunqueiros nearby none other than Oleiros, the mountain village where the roasted kid recipe originated. You can imagine my excitement! I immediately sent my cousin a message, “Nuno, do you know anything about this dish?” He absolutely did and set it all up for us at O Prontinho, the go-to place for this dish in the heart of Oleiros. The catch: you need at least six to eight people to reserve an order and to split the 200-euro cost of the meal (prices may vary). No surprise, it wasn’t difficult to find takers to join us. Enter: wide smile.
Maria Afonso dos Santos Silva, the restaurant’s chef and owner, has played a principal role in preserving the ancient ways of this recipe. For nearly 55 years, her restaurant was one of the few places serving this dish, which Maria learned in her early 20s from five spinster sisters in town with a passion for this local tradition. Though Maria is no spring chicken, she’s full of life and dedication to her patrons. She answers phones in the front of the house, checks on roasts in the yard, stirs pots and skillets in the kitchen and brings a smile to the table with everything she serves. She’s a multitasking master! Stocky and tall with short, kinky reddish hair, I’d say she’s the Julia Childs of the mountains.
Maria took me out back and let me peek at the kid, crackling in her stone oven atop a bed of branches. Wafts of roasted garlic enwrapped by grassy, sweet scents tantalized my senses. It was evident we were in for a seriously succulent ride. The trouble, Maria tells me, is how labor intensive it is to prepare the kid (preferably, one to two months-old). Then, there’s how long it takes to roast it. You have to pluck every single piece of fur from the animal to ensure all you’re left with is smooth white skin. It’s then marinated for 24 hours in garlic, white wine and bay leaves and other secret ingredients. The next day, it gets a lard rub down and then it’s placed whole atop a bed of thick branches to keep the kid from touching the marinade that’s placed in the tray. The skin must stay dry in order to crackle. It’s also important to get a vibrant and aromatic fire going with the aid of eucalyptus. Never use pine, Maria, advises. That’ll only make your meat taste bitter. The eucalyptus, on the other hand, injects refreshing notes into the roast. Maria started the fire that day at 9:00AM, placed the kid in at 10:30AM and served it to us at 1:00PM with baby roasted potatoes and kid gizzard-infused rice. She also served my favorite, “Esparregado de Nabiça” (chard mousse; also delicious with spinach), another staple of my mother’s Easter table. What a feast! It was the best of both worlds—the crackling skin typically associated with suckling pig but on one of my favorite meats. This food adventure was so worth it. And, I couldn’t thank my cousin enough for his suggestions and guidance. It sure pays off to have authentic Portuguese connections!
Entirely satisfied with my experience, all that was left to accomplish in “Mission Cabrito Estonado” was to open the rest of the world’s eyes to it. Ironically, not a week went by after my arrival in the U.S. that my cousin sent me the news that one of Portugal’s celebrity chefs had become an ambassador for this dish after discovering it at a local gastronomy festival a few days after we had tasted it in Oleiros. The chef was wowed. Yeah, tell me about it! Soon after, O Museu da Cerveja (the beer museum) in Lisbon announced it would be throwing a Medieval-themed event in honor of the “Cabrito Estonado,” a dish they would now be featuring on their menu. I was floored. So, guess if you stir the pot enough something does happens. In this case, the universe must have heard me.
What now? I say, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying this dish in Lisbon. But if you can, I highly recommend you go to the mountains. The views are breath taking, the villages are charming and there are adventures for foodies and nature buffs galore. And most special, there’s nothing like a chat with an old-school chef that gets her kid from a local farmer and roasts it in a eucalyptus-powered stone oven on site. Memorable indeed!
Still, I’m thrilled to see other restaurants adopt the dish. This is way overdue! Not only because I’m a fan of this tasty meat, but so that the region it comes from can gain the recognition and attention it deserves and needs. And, trust me that there is a whole lot more where that came from … Ever hear of “Maranhos?”
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