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PUERTO RICO HERALD
A Pork-o Rican Christmas
By J.A. del Rosario
December 19, 2003
Forget Bing Crosby's White Christmas, or Dean Martin baritoning through Silver Bells. Forget eggnog, gentle fireplaces and carolers on Main Street dressed like they just walked out of a Charles Dickens novel.
Christmas in Puerto Rico is about hanging out with friends in all night festivities and, most importantly, eating an exorbitant amount of pork. And the perfect place to enjoy a full Puerto Rican Christmas is in the foggy hills of Guavate in the town of Cayey.
Cayey, less than an hour's drive from San Juan, has changed drastically over the past 20 years. On the town's urban centers, shoppers flock to the Wal-Mart Supercenter, and to the array of chain restaurants that have sprouted around the suburbs. But it is in the town's hillside communities, like Guavate, where time has stood still. In this small neighborhood the locals have become famouse islandwide for their lechoneras, (small restaurants that specialize in roasting pig on a spit over an open pit).
And if one thing is true about Puerto Rico, is that during Christmas, all roads lead to the open pit.
This is a time for city dwellers to put their diet and gym schedules aside and head for the hills for some sinful eating.
If you are heading from San Juan, take Route-52 South until you reach the Guavate exit. From there, all you have to do is start winding down the curve riddled mountain roads that make up the Panoramic Route. A word to the wise: The sights on these mountain roads are dazzling, but the roads are narrow, full of curves and lined by deep precipices. If you are doing the driving, keep your eyes on the road.
The Guavate neighborhood is located on Route 184, (another winding mountain road). Take RT.184 and follow the kilometer markings on the side of the road, when you get to km-27, you have arrived. This is lechonera country, and the best stop for classic Puerto Rican Christmas food.
One of the most popular spots to stop is Lechonera El Monte (km.27.4). This humble restaurant, which features outdoor tables, is a perfect place for that pork-heavy lunch. Take in the cool breeze, enjoy the view and stuff yourself like a good little piggy!
At El Monte, like most lechoneras, the pork is sold by the pound, which makes it ideal for sharing, which is the whole point of Christmas!
But what to have with the pork?
First of all, you need to dig into the arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas). This is a Puerto Rican favorite, and it accompanies practically every Christmas meal.
Another classic dish is the pastel. Take mashed plantains, seasoned with herbs and spices, add some pork meat, wrap it up in a plantain leaf and boil it. What emerges if the finest of Puerto Rican cuisine. The good pastel, which has its origins with the slave population of the island during the colonization period, has become the most sought after dish during Christmas.
City-folk go on the hunt every season, looking for the old country ladies who still produce pasteles in mass quantities from their own homes.
All right, these previous dishes are all classic crowd pleasers. Now for some serious culinary experimentation, let's talk about morcillas: the guiltiest pleasure of every Puerto Rican.
To make this local blackened sausage, the pig's intestines are removed and washed. A stuffing is made of rice carefully seasoned with herbs and spices, and (get ready)... pig's blood is added. Yes, that was not a typo.
The main ingredient is the blood.
In some parts of the island, morcilla fanatics don't even bother throwing rice into the mix, and focus on seasoning the blood just right. A dish that is quickly gaining acceptance with visiting members of the Anne Rice Fan Club.
Once you have your bloody mix safely tucked into the intestine, you boil the morcilla, and during this process everything hardens into one solid mass. After the boiling comes the frying, on pig lard...and then it is finally served.
Granted, after this description, only hardcore soul food fanatics will venture in this direction.
But as one sanjuanera who cannot resist this delicacy puts it, "I never think about the ingredients. I just close my eyes and put it in my mouth because it is sooo good."
Another popular lechonera in Guavate is La Reliquia, where you can get great food and drinks, and add some live entertainment. La Reliquia features troubadours and live typical music on the weekends. When is this hill party over? When the last person leaves.
Weekend nights in this mountain oasis have a unique vibe. Imagine yourself in your living room with close friends after hours of eating, drinking, dancing, singing, and laughing.
Puerto Rican Christmas nights can go one forever. So beware, when it is all over, you still have to make your way down the mountain and back to your hotel room.
J.A. del Rosario, a business reporter for The San Juan Star, is a remedial guitar player and an incorrigible nightcrawler. He can be contacted at: : firstname.lastname@example.org