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How to cook a suckling pig

Baby pigs roasting on an open fire. Photo by David Lansing.

At the Santa Greca Festival, I hung out with Nicola and Sabrina Manconi at one of the outdoor barbecue booths, Gastromomia da Tonino, picking up some pointers on how to properly roast the suckling pig that they call porceddu. First of all, says Nicola, you only want pigs that weigh between 5 and 6 kilos. At that point they’re still nursing. Anything bigger than that and they’re on the pig feed and it changes the whole taste of the pork.

Then you should cook them very slowly over a wood fire, carmelizing the skin (which, frankly, is the best part of the little porker as far as I’m concerned). But the most important part comes after the pig has been roasted. That’s when you take the pork and wrap it in aluminum foil with branches of myrtle on top. The hot pork sort of steams the myrtle leaves, releasing their oil and fragrance, and the flavor is picked up in the pig.

So I bought a quarter of a pig plus some grilled intestines (just to snack on) and Nicola threw in some red wine, which he poured from a barrel into a recycled plastic Pepsi bottle, for free, and hunkered down on one of the long wooden picnic tables, eating the porceddu with my fingers and washing it all down with a long swig of rustic wine from my Pepsi bottle and I’ll tell you what—I was in pig heaven.

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Sardinia: Sparrows on a spit

The things in the back that look like intestines are actually grilled eels. In the front are sparrows on a spit. Photo by David Lansing.

Several people wrote me after I blogged about the Santa Greca Festival in Sardinia yesterday and said, “You’re such a lier! They don’t eat eel shish kababs and stuffed sheep and horsemeat!”

Well, that’s not exactly what they said, but pretty close. Actually, it was worse. But they do eat that stuff in Sardinia. And probably a lost of other places as well. (In fact, I just read this week that some guy in New Mexico just got approval to open a horse slaughtering house so he can sell horsemeat steaks. Yum, yum!)

But that’s not even the worst of it. I didn’t want to gross people out so I didn’t tell you the worst thing they were selling at the festival: sparrows on a stick. They catch the birds by putting up giant nets near orchards so that the birds (which are migrating—or at least, trying to) fly into them and get trapped (yes, it’s illegal). Then they drop them in boiling water, pluck off the feathers (but leave the heads, tails, and feet on), and then roast them on a spit with apple slices (for flavor).

You eat the whole thing (except the head). And they don’t take the guts out. And guess what? They taste like chicken.

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Sardinia: Santa Greca Festival

It's all smoke and lights at the Santa Greca Festival in Sardinia.

Last night I headed into Decimomannu for the Santa Greca festival. The thing I love about the saints of the Catholic Church is that most of them probably never existed. Like Santa Greca. Here’s her story: About 400 years ago, give or take a decade, this little town in Sardinia decided to build a new church. So they started digging around and came across an old tombstone dating back to the 4th or 5th century saying that an unnamed Greek who lived two decades, two months, and 19 days, was buried there on Jan. 21 in some unknown year.

That’s it. That was all the information they had: She was a woman, she died when she was 20, and she wasn’t from around here. So the archbishop of Cagliari decides that since this woman was from Greece, she probably came to Sardinia because she was being persecuted by some nasty Roman emperor. Probably because she was a Christian. So he decides, what the hell. Let’s name the church after this woman who, because she has no name we’ll just call Santa Greca, and lets have a festival to celebrate her. And that’s what they did. And are still doing.

So how do they celebrate this mysterious Greek saint? Basically by having a five-day barbecue in which they roast hundreds of suckling pigs as well as eel shish kababs, stuffed sheep intestine, and donkey sausages. You can also get a nice cut of horsemeat if you want, but I don’t recommend it; it costs about double what a plate of suckling pig goes for.

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