eeding a week off from America (like
most of the rest of the world), I phoned my friend Fitz, who runs the Marks Travel Service in Dayton, Ohio, and asked him
where to spend the week between Christmas and New Year's. I wanted a place that was sufficiently decompressed for reading
''Remembrance of Things Past'' (a Christmas present I'd been threatened with for several years and finally granted, after
months of research into the best translation, the Moncrieff-Kilmartin), one that wouldn't induce shame if I didn't see any
sights but one that served unusual food.
I've known Fitz since college daze, and he has been everywhere except possibly Mauritius, and on every conveyance except
possibly stagecoach and nuclear sub. So when he recommended a former fort right on the Atlantic in southwestern Portugal near
the town of Cascais, the reservation was booked without, for once, my checking the Internet and 40 other sources. The Portuguese
word for fort is fortaleza, and simply rolling ''fortaleza'' over your tongue a few times lulls like a mantra.
I could see Proust's pages flying by fluidly. And what could be more calming for a digestive system exhausted by the extreme
sports competition it enters the last two months of every year than a lightly grilled sardine or the Portuguese national dish
of bacalao (salt cod and a starch, usually potatoes)?
''Lisbon is only 30 minutes away by train,'' Fitz said, ''but there's plenty to see in the countryside.'' Indeed there
is: lovely winding roads barely wide enough for a pair of bicycles and vaguely reminiscent of the Hollywood Hills. But in
place of the usually brown Santa Monica mountains are intensely green hillsides left over from the Middle Ages, dotted with
castles and, one suspects, virgins with dunce caps. Since the signage pretty much directs you only to ''Sintra'' or ''Mafra,''
just accept that you won't be able to get where you thought you wanted to go and enjoy the Portuguese green, which is slightly
yellower, I think, than most, and hypnotically deeper. The only aspect of Portugal that Fitz failed to tell me about was a
gustatory masterpiece hither to unremarked on in the Western culinary canon.
Fortaleza do Guincho isn't exactly on the Atlantic Ocean; it's in the Atlantic Ocean, atop cliffs pummeled day and night
by waves breaking 50 yards out and thrashing thrillingly against the rocks below -- dramatic in all sorts of weather, but
during a storm more operatic than a Baz Luhrmann Verdi. The beds in the hotel, like many in Europe, are as hard as the cliffs
outside, perhaps under the Continental misperception that cement is good for your back; other than that, the place is simultaneously
quaint and opulent.
Portuguese cuisine is pleasant but not one of the world's most innovative. It is also not a familiar one in New York (only
two restaurants come to mind, TriBeCa's upscale Pico and Alfama in the West Village), and though I wouldn't try to summarize
an entire nation's cuisine -- even if that nation is only the size of Kentucky (I wouldn't try to summarize Kentucky's either)
-- it is certainly best known for four specialties: cod and sardines, easygoing whitefish and potatoes. But that's about to
Cascais, a charming town where mosaic crab, shrimp and starfish cavort in trompe l'oeil sidewalks, creating the feeling
of strolling among tiny-tiled waves, has plenty of restaurants, most featuring grilled and boiled seafood and meats. I spent
the better part of a week there (not attending to my Proust) trying to find someone rude in proof of a Manhattanite's cynical
view of the world -- and came up empty. English is not as common as it is in other European countries, but good cheer and
charades are international.
Ten minutes away by car is Guincho, a strip of beach with its own fascinating beach shack Restaurant Row -- nearly a dozen
boites, most of them seaside, with spectacular views and seafood that seems to have jumped out of the ocean onto your plate.
Preparation is uniformly simple: the best is roasted in salt or grilled or sauteed in olive oil. Some fish arrives aswamp
in oil, like the line-caught turbot at Mestre Ze (a four-minute walk from the fortaleza) and the baby eels at Porto de Santa
Maria, a Michelin-rated restaurant -- and, as usual, the Michelin proved unreliable outside France.
My palate's first reaction, accustomed as it was to the hyper-herbing and -spicing of New York's explosive international
cuisines, was to judge the food bland. There was none of the culinary Ritalin that Ripert at Le Bernardin and Pasternack at
Esca bring to their unsauced fishes. Here, the cooks were content to let the fish speak for themselves -- perhaps a little
too sotto voce. But after two days, a funny thing happened: my taste buds underwent refinement. A grain of salt added to otherwise
unseasoned sea bream turned it electric. At the best of Guincho's Restaurant Row, O Faroleiro, a superb and fat seafood kebab
and the cataplana shine. The cataplana -- a fish or shellfish stew named after its container -- enhances the local catch with
a fistful of cream and a surprising splash of ketchup. Don't wince; you'll probably want seconds. The cataplana cooking and
serving utensil is a stunning hinged copper pot that looks like an enormous egg. Its top locks securely in place, retaining
the juices, and is already planned for one -- possibly all -- of next year's Christmas gifts. I couldn't find one in the States.
It was felicitous that just as I became sated on seafood, I overheard whispers of the white suckling pig of Negrais.
The final s in Portuguese sounds like a series of j's (or like the zs in Zsa Zsa), so Negrais is pronounced ne-GREYJJJ.
Located north and east of Cascais, it is, to the best of my knowledge, the only town in the world with a takeout-suckling-pig
store. Rosa Dos Leitoes does a land-office business selling nothing but a few potato chips and split, butterflied, roasted
baby pigs, boxed like pizzas, to walk-in, carry-out customers. In the back, man-high, room-wide, wood-burning ovens turn these
out at a rate that would give fits to a Burger King manager -- that's how slow they are. You can also buy a portion, which
I did, and almost fainted with delight. You will never taste plain pork this good. The skin, so often leathery, is firm but
not stiff, and the flesh inside bathes you with salt and the lush, dark complexity that pork should have but so seldom does.
It's a little unclear just how Negrais came to be the suckling pig capital of Europe, so I asked Paulo, a most charming
waiter at what is generally considered the best restaurant in town, O Caneira, a big, friendly, brightly lighted barn of a
place. Paulo shrugged. ''We've just become known for the pig, so now we are famous for it,'' he said. ''It's like a legend.''
Are the pigs raised here? ''No, they are raised in Alentejo. But they are killed and cooked in Negrais.'' Is it a black pig?
''No, the black pig is too savage.'' (I assume he meant wild.)
Suckling pig is quite adaptable to the home oven, though because the basic product isn't the same, results may differ.
Ideally, you will need a sunny day, some salt and pepper and either the know-how or a butcher to butterfly it. This is no
paunchy Porky with an apple in his mouth. He is flattened, as if by steamroller, till he looks like a flying bat, and is then
salted, put out in the sun for half an hour, moistened and peppered, then roasted for 30 to 90 minutes on one side and 30
to 90 minutes on the other. (Roasting time is highly subjective; just make sure he's golden.) You will also turn your back
on North Carolina and Texas, because for once the best barbecue sauce in the land is no match for this cochon unadorned.
If you conclude that you haven't had the best pork in the world at home, pack and go to Negrais. (Skip TAP, the Portuguese
airline, where you will lose your appetite for food altogether.) Ask for Paulo, who will help you find your car keys if the
redhead you're with happens to lose them, even if it takes 45 minutes. Try that at Le Bernardin.
I never did get to Lisbon and managed only 50 pages of Proust -- on the plane over. As Fitz had warned, too many windy
walks on the beach, too many medieval country roads, too many castles to explore, too much cataplana. But not enough -- never
enough -- of that pig from Negrais. May I die with it -- or from it -- hanging on my lips.
3 tablespoons kosher salt
1 whole suckling pig (about 12 pounds), cleaned and butterflied
2 tablespoons ground white pepper
Pepper sauce (optional):
1/4 cup Branston Pickle (see note)
teaspoons ground white pepper.
1. Rub the salt over both sides of the pig; let stand at room temperature for 1 hour.
2. Preheat the oven to 475 degrees. Line a large roasting pan with heavy-duty foil so that it extends beyond the pan. Brush
the foil with the oil.
3. Combine the pepper and 2 tablespoons cold water and rub over both sides of the pig. Place the pig, skin side down, in
the prepared pan. (The legs will extend beyond the pan, so make sure there is foil underneath.) Roast for 1 hour. Carefully
turn the pig skin side up and roast 30 minutes more, or until the skin is crisp and the internal temperature registers 155
degrees on an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thigh. Let rest 15 to 20 minutes before carving.
4. To make the pepper sauce, combine 1/2 cup water, the Branston Pickle and the pepper until blended. Serve with pig, if
Yield: 10 servings.
Note: Branston Pickle is available at www.britishdelights.com and at Myers of Keswick, 634 Hudson Street.
1 medium onion, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup diced smoked ham
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
2 cups chicken stock
2/3 cup ketchup (preferred) or tomato puree
1/2 cup heavy or whipping cream
Tabasco or other hot-pepper sauce
3/4 pound large shrimp, shelled and deveined
3/4 pound squid, cleaned, bodies cut
3/4 pound cooked lobster meat, cut into chunks
Salt to taste
4 cups cooked rice.
1. Saute onion in 1 tablespoon of the olive oil until tender.
2. In a large saucepan, heat the remaining tablespoon of oil over medium heat. Add the onions, ham and oregano; cover and
cook until the mixture is fragrant, about 3 minutes. Stir in the stock, ketchup, cream and Tabasco and bring to a boil. Immediately
add the shrimp, squid and lobster. Return just to a boil, then simmer 2 minutes, or until the shrimp are pink. Season with
salt to taste. Serve immediately with the rice.
Yield: 4 servings.