Mr. Cochinillo: Perspicaciously Perfecting Pork and Paella

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Three off-white brick ovens stand side by side each other girded in iron frames resembling an apartment complex for dwarves. Each has a thermometer like a clock tower for each apartment, and a pot on top (which breaks the illusion of The Smurfs’ apartment, unless you picture Gargamel’s dinner, but then again, you probably don’t want to). Tinee de Guzman opens the door of the leftmost oven and three little pigs lie inside (and let’s not get into the obvious children’s story analogy here), each no bigger than a loaf of bread and sporting a sumptuous shade of deep brown. The heady scent of sizzling pork fat wafts out of the oven like a lover – it not merely beckons to come hither but practically grabs you by the collar for a throaty French kiss.

“Roasts aren’t like a microwave,” he explains. “You don’t put the meat in, press a button and make it.” He gestures towards the ovens. “These ovens have different characteristics even though they sort of look the same. They don’t heat up the same way. They don’t have heat in the same areas. Some take more time, some take less time.” One of the cooks slides a pig out, cooked cochinillo asado style – the Spanish equivalent of lechon or roast pig.

De Guzman’s nom de guerre is Mr. Cochinillo, a rather appropriate rubric someone else thought up. “The Mr. Cochinillo moniker came about from an interview I had in 2012 from the Inquirer when Pocholo (Concepcion) goes, “Meet Mr. Cochinillo,” in his article,” he admits. “At that time, my cochinillo was named Cochinillo del Cielo. We went with that because it’s heavenly. And then people tease me and say they’ll die early because this stuff is just so rich it’ll make your blood pressure shoot straight up to the stars. Well, what better way to go, right?”

We laugh then turn our attention to an adobe stove next to the ovens. The stove resembles a giant baby’s shoe, with the kindling and charcoal piled in where a giant foot could supposedly enter. Fire flickers and peers within that space through crown-like crenellations and on top is where the paella pan lies suspended, covered in a broad aluminum lid perforated near the top. De Guzman gingerly pulls off the lid and steam billows in a voluminous cloud like the smoke from a magician’s illusion. The paella roils and boils merrily, an orange stew of seafood soup stock, saffron, chunks of chicken and tender squid. “That’s one of the secrets,” he confides. “You have to let it simmer.” A cook steps in to assist de Guzman and he carefully pours short, thin, lemon yellow vermicelli noodles into a mound on the bubbling swamp and with a thick wooden spoon, begins to mix methodically, making sure not to spill a single bit of the stew.

The dish in question is Paella Fideua, a Valenciana dish with a colorful story – legend has it that a man named Gabriel Rodriguez Pastor created it for the crew of his fishing boat. Supposedly, their captain loved rice and the sailors never got their portion of arroz y banda, a dish Pastor would make for them. The crafty cook decided to use noodles instead so his greedy captain wouldn’t be as interested. True enough, the dish became popular and de Guzman eventually found out about it and brought it to his kitchen.

I turn to see the cook still mixing the fideua. The noodles have absorbed the savory broth and none of the saffron is in sight. In its place is a towering pile of noodles, chicken and seafood, steam rising in broad wisps from cuts he makes into the mound as he continues his task. He then garnishes the fideua with fat shrimps, mussels and clams.

“I started this because this kitchen was being used as an alternate kitchen,” says de Guzman, gesturing to his right. “The other kitchen was being fixed,” he explains, pointing to another covered area with burners, ovens and large sinks. “We would always have a lot of people here for big lunches, buffets, dinners and family gatherings. We didn’t have a proper oven at that time. We got one around 2011. It was then that I started cooking whatever I wanted, like big roasts. Every time, we’d have them for big cookouts for lunch or dinner after mass in the house, family Sunday get-togethers. As I grew more confident, I’d have friends over for dinner at least every month and we would have something we would roast – beef, briskets, what have you.”

But the one thing de Guzman really wanted to do was cochinillo. “I never got around to doing it because there were so many other things to cook that were always readily available, like I’d have one friend send over some lamb from the province that we’d try. Cochinillo was elusive. I would hear people not being able to get a good source. At that time, Vietnam and China were sending imports that we had to be very careful about because we weren’t quite sure of the quality. That’s why I never really got into it – it was tricky getting the piglets.”

It was de Guzman’s other tradecraft as a photographer that got him into the wonderful world of pork. “I have a photography studio in White Plains (in Quezon City) where I do my shoots. Shoots have a lot of people and when they’re done, they want to eat. So, I started offering food to them. A friend of mine asked me if they could rent my place for a party – it was gonna be a joint birthday party for him and his son’s second birthday. I said, ‘Sure, I can make pizzas for the kids and roast beef and paella for the adults.’ I must have mentioned off-hand that I could do cochinillo. Later, they asked specifically for the cochinillo and not to bother with the other items. Thing is, I had never cooked cochinillo before so I had three weeks to prepare.”

De Guzman used that window to concentrate all his efforts on perfecting a cochinillo recipe and getting the right ingredients. “I was able to find a good supplier for pigs,” he continues. “The party was end of October, 2012, hence the 2012 on my logo because that’s when it all began. The chef preparing the rest of the food for the party came by and looked over my setup. He then asked me if I could prepare two cochinillos for him for the weekend. Since then, I’ve been making them for take-out and for catering.”

The Paella Fideua is served and I enjoy a steaming heap of it on my plate. The seafood flavor conjures images of crusty old Catalans sailing out to catch fresh squid and fish and settling down to a bowl of hot noodles after a long day’s labors. Finally, the cochinillo comes out and de Guzman takes a dessert plate and uses it to cut the sucking pig, in the traditional Spanish way. The skin crackles and effortlessly gives way to the porcelain disc. He carves out a generous piece of skin the size of a letter and hands it to me. The buttery taste of the suckling pig lends a counterpoint to its delicate saltiness while crumbling between my teeth with more ease than a freshly toasted potato chip. What can I say but Mr. Cochinillo still serves Cochinillo del Cielo. ¡Verdad!

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