The Lemurs have left behind the architectural overload of Rome and we're spending a week with good friends K and L in the countryside of Lazio. We're in the village of Sutri, not far from the city but offering a whole other experience of Italian life. We're doing some serious relaxing here, with twice daily trips to the fruit lady, the baker and the salumeria being our most strenuous activities. This is the view from our roof terrace as the sun goes down – as Anthony Bourdain likes to say, this does not suck.
But if there's one Italian delicacy that can pull me out of my lounge chair and prompt action, it's porchetta. Ah, the porchetta trucks of yesteryear… In the central regions of Lazio and Umbria, this stuffed and spit roasted baby pig is a thing of beauty, to be queued for early on market mornings and eaten in a mid-morning frenzy with nobody able to hold out until lunchtime. Here in Sutri, there are two stores near the main square that boast home made porchetta: one that roasts it al legno, in a wood-fired oven, and the other, a cured meat and cheese store that we nicknamed Sexy Pig for reasons best explained by their sign.
Seriously, is this not the most amazing sign you've ever seen? We've become kind of obsessed with Sexy Pig, as the staff are incredibly friendly and their sausages, cheeses and home-made meatballs are all fantastic. But what of the wood-fired oven people? Surely their porchetta must be pretty good too. What to do? Thus it was decided that the only way to solve this dilemma was a taste test: a porchetta-off. We bought a few (ok, quite a few) slices of porchetta from each store and brought them home to taste.
We started with a few slices of pizza from the bakery, just to ready ourselves for the meat frenzy to come, you understand. The bakery makes amazing pizza bianca, just with olive oil and salt, and today they also had radicchio pizza, made with a little tomato, and zucchini flower pizza, which surprisingly had a lot of anchovies in the sauce. All were delicious, but it was time for some serious meat judging.
We set out the duelling porchette. Sexy Pig, on the left, looked paler, fattier, perhaps less obviously delicious than Al Legno, which had deeply coloured stuffing and bronzed skin. (I asked the nice signora how to say crispy pig skin in Italian, as it's really crucial to be able to ask for some of this in one's porchetta. It's 'crusta' by the way.) We tasted both and wrote up judging notes in three categories: skin, meat, and stuffing, then voted anonymously before opening discussion. It was a challenge as both porchette were insanely good. It became necessary to have seconds, just to make sure we had a completely fair contest.
At first, Al Legno seemed to be the favourite. The skin was perfectly crunchy, with a hint of burnt flavour that was appreciated by Mr Lemur in particular. He likened it to South American roast pork, which is obviously a high compliment. The dark meat was also deemed excellent, although the white meat was a touch dry. Al Legno's stuffing split the voters – K pointed out that it had some kind of organ meat in it, making it richer, darker and deeper in flavour than Sexy Pig's. However, both he and I felt it over-salted and too spicy, overwhelming the meat a little bit.
Sexy Pig, by contrast, looked a little less appealing, with less deep coloration on the meat and skin, but it smelled amazing. The skin was less crunchy than Al Legno's but it was tasty and I think porchetta skin is meant to be slightly chewy rather than exactly like British crackling. Still, Sexy Pig lost out on the skin category. However, it won on the meat category. Although Mr Lemur preferred the rich dark meat of Al Legno, everyone agreed with L that Sexy Pig managed to keep the white meat especially moist. The meat was oily and juicy at once, and they had clearly managed to prevent the juices from dripping out during the roasting process, rendering the meat soft and sweetly flavoured. Moreover, Sexy Pig won on stuffing too – it was light and herbaceous, with a fennel and rosemary scent that was fresh and very Italian.
It was an incredibly close contest as both versions were decadently porky but the vote went 3 to 1 for Sexy Pig. Given our enthusiasm for the Sexy Pig staff, we were relieved that their porchetta won out. Now, time for a tiny little nap before dinner time…