Even I have used the term lechon de leche loosely to refer to very small roasted pigs. But I have increasingly noticed how this term is being (often intentionally) misused, even abused by retailers/restaurateurs and many consumers seem confused as well. Tomes purporting to be the final word on Philippine cuisine seem to have a strong opinion on what constitutes an ideal lechon de leche — and frankly, they are technically wrong. Others have lectured me (verbally and by mail) on the ideal weights as well, while some vendors use the term to refer to their products when they are not completely accurate or forthright. Today, even the source of small pigs is something to seriously consider and take pause on when you decide to indulge in this delicacy. Literally translated, lechon de leche is a suckling pig, or one that is literally living solely off the milk of its mother. That’s it. Folks from Spain to Manila will argue over what age is best, but there seems to be reasonable agreement, that the best lechon de leches are between 3-4 weeks old (five at most, when the mothers milk starts to dwindle in volume), not too young that they are just skin and bones, and not too old that they are already on solid feed. Most piggeries or backyard hog raisers seem to wean their piglets at around 3-4 weeks, and at roughly 4.5-6.0 kilos live weight here in the Philippines, roughly 3-3.5 kilos cleaned weight. It is possible to keep piglets suckling for several weeks more, but it’s rather rare I am told, particularly if you are raising pigs to be sold.
The lechon de leche in these photos was 24-25 days old, and weaned just that morning. We bought it at the Mantalongon Barili market, and spoke directly with the lady who raises the piglets. It was roughly 5 kilos live weight. It had never had any solid food and you can absolutely taste that in its creamy flesh. The Teen does not allow me to cook these when she is around, and I have to admit it seems a bit mean to eat them, but authentic lechon de leches are incredibly delicious, and bred specifically to be sold into the food chain for carnivores like myself. We roasted this piglet splayed open, with some herbs in the stomach cavity and basted with butter, over coals for about 60-70 minutes. It was roughly 2.5 kilos cooked weight, if not slightly less. And you can see the size of the lechon from these photos. It is noticeably smaller than this earlier posted baked lechon, that I thought was a “de leche”, but at 9-10 pounds cleaned weight, was probably 6-7 weeks of age, and apparently NOT a de leche, given its size. So unless you trust the actual source of the pig, suffice it to say that the chances of ANY cooked lechon de leche presented to you that is HEAVIER than about 2.5-3.0 kilos in cooked weight (unstuffed), is NOT an authentic lechon de leche. I am being a stickler for this fact as I dislike misrepresentation. And calling a lechon a “de leche” when it is in fact feeding on commercial feed pellets, rather than milk, is just downright WRONG and MISLEADING. Kinda like calling oranges “Sagada oranges” when they originated somewhere in China. More information of weaning age, piglet weights, etc. here, here, and here. Philippine piglets seem to be smaller than their western counterparts…
Because ordering a lechon de leche is special event material, it’s extremely hard to keep real fresh lechon de leche in stock. Precisely because if they get older than say 28 days, they will start to go on feed, and are not authentic de leches. Not to mention having to have the mother pig in-house with all the piglets… For friends and family, I cook AUTHENTIC and FRESH lechon de leches for special events, and make sure our own buyer or trusted supplier gets the piglets fresh from a weekly provincial livestock market. They are usually served the day we purchase them, or at most, a day or two later, feeding them just water and if necessary, milk. This is, practically speaking, the ONLY WAY to have AUTHENTIC and FRESH lechon de leches.
So where are many restaurants getting their lechon de leches or cochinillos? Many of them are frozen. And yes, I have heard and seen many small pigs imported frozen from Vietnam, one of the largest suppliers of “suckling but often not really suckling sized pigs” in the world… It is said that much of the cochinillo you might encounter in Spain itself is made from imported young, frozen piglets… Now is there a difference between fresh and frozen? I have indeed tried both, and several times at that. While I would be hard-pressed to tell them apart blindfolded with a taste test, I think the main difference is in the quality of the cooked skin, and the buttery, milky tenderness of the flesh. Frozen pigs don’t seem to burnish and crisp as nicely as freshly slaughtered babies. It’s simply a personal preference that I like them fresh, not frozen. Just as I like fresh fish more than frozen fish. But most consumers do not distinguish, usually assuming they are getting a fresh lechon de leche, precisely because of the outrageous prices charged for this delicacy… Here are examples of Vietnamese suppliers, here and here, note how the pigs are packed and frozen, and they cost next to nothing at the source, you could probably land them in Manila at say $5 or so per kilo, or PHP220 a kilo, when a freshly purchased and slaughtered equivalent locally would run you a whopping PHP500-600 a kilo, cleaned weight. And some of the advertised suckling pigs are as big as 23 kilos cleaned weight, roughly 35+ kilos live weight…that’s one massive suckler! :)
I write all of this so you may be better informed about AUTHENTIC lechon de leches. From my perspective, this is how I would rank various suckling pigs, and what I would be willing to PAY for them…
1. The Best — A locally sourced, backyard raised, freshly slaughtered true lechon de leche, roughly 3-4 weeks old. Likely price, say PHP1,000-1,200 per kilo cooked weight, bones included. A three kilo cooked weight lechon de leche at say PHP3,500 or so.
2. Second Best — A locally sourced, freshly slaughtered then immediately wrapped and frozen lechon de leche, roughly 3-4 weeks old. Kept frozen for just days or a couple of weeks at most, then carefully defrosted and roasted either over coals or in an oven. Likely price, say PHP900-1,100 per kilo cooked weight, bones included. A three kilo cooked weight lechon de leche at say PHP3,200 or so.
3. Third Best — An imported lechon de leche, meeting the true lechon de leche weight standards, packed in mass production and looking evil in their packaging and long term storage in deep freeze (often months long). Likely price say PHP600-700 per kilo cooked weight, bones included. A three kilo cooked weight lechon de leche at say PHP2,000 or so.
So remember, it isn’t a REAL lechon de leche if it’s greater than say 3-4 kilos in cooked weight, unstuffed. And you shouldn’t be paying a huge premium for it if it wasn’t freshly slaughtered and locally sourced. A lot of restaurants will be seriously cross with me for having spelled this out. But consumers should be armed with facts and and make their purchasing decisions accordingly.
Smaller pigs, though not real lechon de leches, are still very nice to eat, and are noticeably more tender and leaner than much older pigs, so they would be the next choice after true lechon de leches. However, I do occasionally find that I like the slightly bigger pigs done lechon style, as they take longer to cook and the stuffing and herbs and spices permeate their meat more. So it’s definitely a matter of personal preference really.
So back to this particular lechon de leche. It was SUBLIME. Perfectly cooked, in my opinion. With skin so crisp we did, literally, cut it with a plate as they would do in some of the restaurants in Spain. Just roll the little platito with gentle pressure across the skin and listen to it crackle and splinter. The skin was very thin, with a nearly no fat behind it, and just tasty, crisp and delicious. The meat was tender and tasted almost milky.
We do two variations on this lechon de leche for family and friends, one with truffle oil brushed onto the cooked pig, and a sprinkling of truffle salt as well. And a spicy version where we brush homemade siling labuyo (bird’s eye chili) oil onto the nearly cooked lechon de leche. :)
In Spain, this size of piglet cooked as a cochinillo is often done inside a wood fired brick oven. Hopefully, by the end of this year, I will finally build our own brick oven and try to make this the traditional spanish way as well.