IS it possible that the Greeks invented the lechon?
Apparently the spit-roasted pig goes as far back as the Trojan War! That would be around the 13th or 12th century BC, if we are to believe the Ancient Greeks. Some say the Trojan War was just Homer’s fiction. But the doubtful existence of Achilles’ heel and Helen’s face lauching a thousand ships notwithstanding, this Greek lechon record exists:
In Homer’s epic poem “Odyssey,” it is recorded that no less than Odysseus, the legendary Greek king of Ithaca, ate cochinillo for lunch and lechon for dinner. Check it out: “Odysseus and his swineherd eat, between them, a small roast pig for luncheon, and a third of a five-year old hog for dinner.” (“Odyssey, XX, 72 in Durant, The Life of Greece,” page 45).
Unfortunately, Homer didn’t share the recipe or say if the lechon was stuffed or not. So what that Odysseus-worthy Greek lechon tastes like is left for us to imagine. But it could be very similar to that lechon prepared by El Greco, a Greek cook I met recently.
El Greco is Anthony Gouronopolo. He’s a Greek fellow who first learned to cook from his mom, attended some seminars on Greek cuisine and got serious enough about cooking to study at the Chef D’oeuvre in Athens and at Le Monde while working at “48,” which happens to be one of the best restaurants in Athens.
Later in life, enamored by a Filipina, he chose to live in the Philippines. He wanted to be a jeepney driver, would you believe? Thank God destiny directed his feet back to the kitchen instead. Because it is through El Greco that we’d finally be able to appreciate Odysseus-worthy Greek lechon.
Unlike in the epic poem, though, Greco’s lechon is not spit-roasted but oven-roasted. He uses a month-old piglet so the skin is so delicately crispy. He debones it for an easier fork-and-knife experience of the juicy, porky meat. Then he stuffs it with chestnuts and apples and all these other things that make it feel like Christmas.
Here in the Philippines, our spit-roasted pork is not known for its stuffing. We focus on the skin: thick, shiny, crisp skin with glistening white fat underneath. Elar’s has a good reputation for lechon whose skin stays crispy throughout the day. I’ve also had experiences about the skin of an Elar’s lechon still being crispy the day after it was delivered (provided you make it breathe upon delivery, i.e., release it from the paper wrapper it comes in).
Or we focus on the meat: Cebu lechon is known to be stuffed with lemongrass, not to munch on but to add to the flavors of the meat.
There are, exceptionally, a couple of lechon outlets that specialize in stuffed lechon. Lydia’s is known for its paella stuffing. Dedet dela Fuente of Pepita’s Lechon has created a following for her takes on stuffing: truffled rice, roasted garlic and potatoes, even machang.
But El Greco’s is even more unique as he uses the following for his stuffing: apples, mushrooms, oranges, prunes, chestnuts, onions and Greek spices. The result is a uniquely sweet and aromatic take on lechon. Then, as a final touch, the sweet little piglet is bathed in its own fat: The bones taken out earlier are simmered in broth for hours to create a sauce that is also scented with the drippings from the lechon collected as it came out of the oven.
Whether Homer would approve or not, discovering El Greco was a treat because our impressions of Greek food revolve around lamb, lamb… and more lamb. Robbie Goco’s Cyma, for instance, is still a foodie favorite for its Paidakia or lamb ribs. Meanwhile, the Arni Lemonato or roasted lamb of Greeka Kouzina (roasted for five hours) has foodies flocking to San Juan and lining up for hours just for a taste of this five-hour slow-roasted dish.
El Greco also serves lamb but as the chef’s mother cooked it: stewed in Greek olive oil, fresh dill, parsley, tons of lettuce spiked with a big shot of Ouzo. Then right before serving, Avgolemono Sauce made out of lemon and egg is added.
The great thing about El Greco’s dishes is that these are not the touristy Greek dishes that we are more familiar with but what Greeks eat at home. The chef’s chicken pie comes in perfect filo layers because he learned the art of filo pastry making from Stelios Parliaros, reputedly one of the best pastry chefs in Greece. Best of all, his ingredients are flown in from his homeland. His hummus, for instance, uses Greek chickpeas; the tzatziki uses a Greek yogurt; Lagana bread is made with Greek flour and Greek yeast, while the Filo pastry is made with Greek Ipiros butter—all imported.
“The feta cheese here is not really feta,” he says with a tinge of disappointment. When you buy feta cheese, he explained, you must make sure it uses sheep and not goat’s milk. So I researched and found out that in fact since 2005, the European Union’s highest court awarded exclusivity of the name “feta” to Greece. To be classified as “feta” cheese, it must be made purely from sheep’s milk or only up to 30 percent maximum goat’s milk, among other requirements.
The good news is, we finally have in the Philippines a real Greek dude who cooks as a Greek mama would. The bad news is that he doesn’t have a restaurant yet. He does accept catering and private dining requests. And he sells his Greek ingredients at bazaars. So book him as early as now or order that Odysseus-worthy lechon for that reunion this Christmas! Otherwise, there’s always Cyma and Greeka Kouzina for that Grecian fix. And La Loma, Pampanga, Cebu or Iloilo for lechon. •
For inquiries on catering, private dining and Greek ingredients, call tel. 851-0204 or 851-0180 or 0917-5291055 or 0920-9512343.