Updated: Oct 29, 2021
Somewhere on half way between Coimbra and Aveiro there is a small town that is in none of the tour guides and has no particular mention even in the Portuguese tourism websites. But for real connoisseurs of local cuisines and those whose buds are activated by the smell of roasted meat, Mealhada is a capital! Each weekend (but also during the week) thousands of families literally pour into Mealhada to have the best suckling pig in the country.
Idea of Portuguese people as those who are feeding only with sardines and bacalhau is very dishonest one. They like meat too, especially pork and beef. In winter but also throughout the year, they would enjoy cozido à portuguesa, a typical meat pot with numerous regional variations, consisting of meat (chicken, pork, bacon, pork eat or legs, parts of beef, often mixed together), smoked sausages and vegetables such as beans, potatoes, carrots turnips, cabbages, rice). Portugal is proud on its sausages, like pork sausage chouriço, fermented, cured and smoked sausage with deep red colour and sliced into delicious slices. They would often drink some apple cider or some strong alcoholic beverage like some aguardiente along. More akin to use for cozido is farinheira, smoked sausage made from wheat flour, pork fat and seasoning (white wine, paprika, salt and pepper) and it is also favourite for breakfast. Another meaty thing is blood sausage. In Portugal, they love it in many varieties and it is usually called morcela or negrinha.
But forget all of that when you enter Mealhada, home base for the leitão assado da Bairrada, roasted piglet with creamy flesh and absolutely ultimate skin crunch! Don’t be fooled with lots of offered leitão assado in the rest of the country: Mealhada is the pig capital and it this dish should be tried here, blended with some good local Bairrada red wine. You may not feel that way when you come to the city, though. Mealhada is sleepy town of some 5000 people. Getting outside a small railway station will bring you to a somewhat a promenade with few bars and shops, ending at the rather nice park next to the municipality building. But hey, what is that in the park? Oh yes, the azulejos on the fountain show a cook placing a piglet into a wood-burning oven! It is a good omen for pork lovers!
If you stretch your legs or your car a bit further you will end up on a magistral way that will guide you to a dozen restaurants where you just have to follow the leitão sign. Some of them are very famous such as Meta Dos Leitoes, Restaurante Rei Dos Leitões, Pic-Nic Dos Leitões, Tres Pinheirros Dos Leitoes, but most famous of all is Pedro Dos Leitões, a restaurant that was opened in 1943 as a place to sell pork sandwiches to the truck drivers. Yes, everywhere where truck drivers stop, it must be an excellent place! And indeed it is; Pedro Dos Leitões caters for some 400 people in large area and prepare over 100 pigs a day. There is no need for elaborative menu here, as everyone knows why are they there and can’t wait for the silver plate of roasted piglet in front of them.
The crunchy skin is heaven for pork fans, revealing a layer of delicious and creamy fat beneath it. The meat is moist – always such a good sign of perfectly prepared pork. Parts of skin are covered in peppers and hot sauce, others are mild. Next to it comes a plate of potato chips and maybe a simple salad. Pork comes from Bairrada region and is considered to be the best in Portugal. Many places in Mealhada have their own preparation of meat, guaranteeing freshness and best quality. The meat is rubbed with garlic, pig fat, coarse salt and pepper and skewered on a roast pit before going into the oven for some two hours. The result is splendid roast that will for long stay a level marker of an excellent pork!
Photos by Taste of Adriatic & Pedro Dos Leitões