Last night I decided to drop by for a few BBZ's (Beer Below Zero) at Guzzler (a small drinking spot behind the Shell Station on the corner of E. Rodriguez and Tomas Morato in Quezon City.
I wasn't expecting anything from this unscheduled tippling at the end of a rather busy week.
In any case, I ambled in the beautiful proprietress Bianca welcomed me as usual and insisted that I sit at a table with other friends.
As the drinks came along with the delicious chicken tail barbecue that they have, I got talking with a guy who looked pretty much like Rain and Jet Li.
Our conversation centered around the idea of the ultimate Lechon experience and it was like a conversation with Forrest Gump's best friend Bubba -- except it was about Lechon, not shrimp.
I thought I knew everything there was to know about Lechon until I stepped into a conversation with Charlie Gaw, the 35 year old owner of Sabroso.
"You know good Lechon when it kisses your lips, when the aroma of the herbs and marinade tickles your nose, when the skin crunches and crackles, and when the juices of the fragrant meat swirls around your mouth. Most Lechons look great, but there is no fooling the mouth when it comes to really good Lechon."
A good lechon, Charlie says, starts with the quality of the pig itself and the key is finding the perfect pig for the perfect roast.
For one, Charlie insists on using a freshly slaughtered pig and not one that has been hanging from a freezer for weeks or months. "I can tell if a pig has been frozen before it was turned into a Lechon, the meat is dry and in some cases, it's like chewing paper."
He also doesn't buy pigs that are raised in Quezon (which he says are most likely fed with niyog or mature coconut meat, making it masebo or has it prone to having congealed fat), but rather on small farms where the pigs are fed natural corn feed. The pigs have to have a good life, living free-range where they can walk around and root around the place.
In anycase, Charlie gets these pigs delivered to his own abattoir and these pigs are slaughtered only when there is an order for Lechon. This assures that the pig that is being roasted is at the peak of its quality.
The cooking method for most Lechons are pretty straight forward. The whole pig is marinated with spices and herbs, after which, it is put on a spit and roasted.
But, according to Charlie, that isn't good enough.
"The thing with Lechon is that the bones don't get cooked enough and come out of the fire pit still rare. The uncooked blood in the bones of the pig is what causes the Lechon to spoil after a few hours on the road. What I do is I have all the pig's bones broken, the most crucial part of which is the spine of the pig -- all of the vertebrate has to be split from the back of the neck to the pelvis and tail."
He says that only after this can the marinating begin. Apart from the usual salt and paper, he uses lemon grass, young tamarind leaves, and the fruit of a plant that only grows in Cebu. The flesh and cracked bones get a thorough massage in the marinate.
Once the pig finishes from the flavor spa, it is roasted on an open pit.
Charlie says that most Lechon is taken off the pit after it turns a certain color and the result is a mediocre Lechon with skin that doesn't crackle when it is bitten.
What Charlie does is, after the pig comes from the fire pit, he has a specialist Lechonero go over the whole pig one more time in a high heat pit that turns all of the skin of the pig into crackling.
"The best Lechon doesn't come with paella inside or sisig inside. You don't need any of that gimmickry with really good Lechon and that's what I try to make. Simply put, you just have to get the best ingredients and use the best cooking methods you can find, then making the best Lechon is almost assured,"