There might be a menu at Bota Feijão, but we’ve never seen it. The only decision to make at this restaurant located just outside central Lisbon is whether or not you want a salad (the answer is yes) and what kind of wine to drink (the answer is sparkling).
“We serve suckling pig,” says Pedro Pereira – the second generation in charge of Bota Feijão – by way of explanation. And it really is as simple as this. Pedro and his family spit-roast suckling pigs in-house, serving them with a couple simple but delicious sides. If they do have a menu, it’s not a very long one.
Suckling pig, known in Portuguese as leitão, is a dish generally associated with Bairrada, a region in northern Portugal. In Lisbon, many restaurants simply truck in the cooked pigs from Bairrada, which means that by the time it arrives, the skin has lost its crispness, the meat no longer meltingly tender. Only a handful of places in Lisbon go to the extent of roasting their pigs in-house, and understandably so: the infrastructure, resources and experience needed to roast suckling pigs are no joke.
At Bota Feijão, the roasting process starts every morning, from Monday to Saturday, when Pedro lights an immense fire in one of three brick-lined, wood-burning ovens. The smoke that results and the amount of wood (eucalyptus, in this case) required to roast suckling pigs justify the restaurant’s unconventional location at the edge of the railroad tracks. On the day we visit, Pedro preps three pigs, removing their organs and filling the now-empty cavities with a fragrant, paste-like mix of white and black pepper, garlic, salt, bay leaves, olive oil and “some secret ingredients I can’t share,” as he puts it. He sews the pigs shut and secures them to metal spits. Occasionally his explanation of the process is drowned out by the roar of a passing train. With the pigs ready to go, Pedro removes some of the coals from the oven, the floor and walls of which are now glowing with an intense heat. When we ask how he knows when the fire is ready, Pedro points at his eye. “We don’t use a thermometer here. We look at the pigs.”
At around 9:30 a.m., Pedro puts the pigs in the oven, explaining, “The first half hour is critical because the intense heat causes the skin to blister and burn.” Indeed, during this window, he doesn’t take his eyes off the oven, working with a long metal pole to pierce these heat bubbles, and occasionally rotating and shifting the pigs. When they’re evenly browned, they’re removed, and some excess heat is allowed to escape from the oven. At around 10 a.m., he returns the pigs to the oven, allowing them to roast untouched in the receding heat until lunch service.
Bota Feijão is a real family business, started by Pedro’s parents 42 years ago. While Pedro preps and roasts pigs and takes reservations via his mobile phone, in a kitchen the size of a closet his mother fries slices of potato until they emerge as crispy and somehow almost entirely oil-free chips (she tells us that they fry as many as 20 kilograms of potatoes some days). Half a step away, Pedro’s father preps ingredients for a dictionary-definition mixed salad: lettuce, tomatoes and slices of onion, served with a pleasantly salty, vinegar-forward dressing. One more employee works the floor, and this tiny team is able to serve dozens of diners.
We ask Pedro about wine pairings, and he tells us, “Most people who eat here order sparkling.” In Portugal, roast suckling pig is often served with some sort of fizzy wine, another product associated with Bairrada; the bubbles, sweetness and acidity able to stand up to all that richness and fat. Pedro explains that the sparkling wines he serves include white, red and rosé, and within these varieties different levels of sweetness and effervescence.
Come noon, the pigs are done. Pedro carefully removes them from the spits then tilts them over a bowl. Out pours a decadent, intensely fragrant mix of melted fat and those seasonings – the sauce that accompanies each order. The pigs are then shifted to the kitchen where Pedro uses heavy-duty pruning shears – the same tool used to cut grapevines – to portion and serve the meat. Pedro tells us that an order at Bota Feijão varies simply by the size of the party ordering, and that each dish includes cuts from various parts of the suckling pig.
“For me, I prefer ribs. Other people prefer the legs, with lots of meat, or the cuts with more fat,” Pedro tells us.
The day’s first order, for a party of two, is served up on one of those ubiquitous Portuguese stainless steel platters, tiled with rectangles of pork; another platter practically groaning under a mountain of chips; one more with a salad; and a gravy boat loaded with that sauce – the meal a blend of balance and decadence, fat and acidity, crispness and tenderness, fragrance and flesh, that really doesn’t require any decisions at all.
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Published on November 11, 2022