Meet Mr. Cochinillo
Christmas is approaching and you know what that means … it’s time for lechon again!
In the city, however, where reunions are not as big as town fiestas, it’s more fashionable to order or bring a cochinillo instead of a lechon.
My go-to for cochinillo has always been Cirkulo. J Gamboa, I must say, has mastered the art of presenting the elegant, crispy baby pig. When I want to enjoy cochinillo at a restaurant (not at home), I go to La Tienda on Polaris, a resto that’s old but gold.
A few years ago, for a Christmas special of Food Prints, the food show of Sandy Daza, I met a guy who goes by the name of Mr. Cochinillo. His real name is Carlos Agustin Valera de Guzman or “Tinee” for short (oddly, even he doesn’t know why his nickname is Tinee).
Tinee served the most delicious black pig cochinillo at Sandy’s Christmas special. I saw him again recently and I am happy to share he also now serves cochinillo cooked in goose fat. Imagine the flavors of roast goose melded with the flavors of roast pig. Boom!
Tinee is an accidental lechonero—or should I say cochinillero, because the processes do have differences.
Tinee has not always been a professional cook although he loved cooking. In fact, he runs the family real estate and ice manufacturing business when not dabbling in photography or spinning as a DJ.
Several years ago, when he started cooking for friends and entertaining them in his photography studio, his cooking was so well-received that before he knew it, he was getting orders for takeout.
First, he experimented with pork bellies—“before it became uso (popular),” he emphasizes—then experimented with bagnet and lechon kawali. Not long after, the home brick oven became a thing and he ordered for his own use.
Then he started experimenting with cochinillo. “Friends were all talking about ovens and I found a person who would do it inexpensively,” he recalls. “Around 2010, I would experiment every week, on Sundays.” In 2012, Mr. Cochinillo was born.
His clientele is extremely high profile. In the course of our conversation, he mentioned several big names who regularly order from him, who are so humble they patiently wait in their car outside his house for their cochinillo orders.
The secret to having this loyal upscale clientele is in his commitment to the slow food process, he says. “It’s just preparation. Slow cook it. Clean it up properly. I clean the nails, the nose, the hair,” he shares.
His website adds, “The secret of a truly delectable cochinillo lies in the preparation. Each carefully selected piglet is thoroughly cleaned and trimmed before being marinated in a special mix of olive oil, herbs and spices. It is then slow-roasted in a custom-made brick oven for hours, where it is cooked in its natural juices and acquires a smokiness only possible from roasting over wood and coal.”
The quality of the pig is also very important and this proved to be challenging over the years. There were some farmers who could not consistently deliver the size and weight of the pig that he required. But he has since discovered accredited suppliers who guarantee his desired quality: that the pig is 28 days old and milk-fed.
He then cooks the baby pigs manually in his charcoal oven. There is no one recipe for the pigs because the temperature will vary depending on weight and size. But, he says he has found “a sweet spot for time and temperature” that assures the desired crispiness for the skin of the pig.
To ensure the skin remains crisp when you take it home, Tinee has instructions on the box: make the cochinillo breathe (the box has holes), preheat your oven to 400 (very important), cook in the oven for 20-40 minutes depending on the size you ordered, then have your small plate for cutting ready (yes, his cochinillo skin is so delicate you can cut it with a plate, the traditional way).
Tinee also packs cochinillo for those who would like to bring it abroad. Note that it’s too big to be vacuum-packed, he freezes the cochinillo instead then bubble wraps it. “You know those 23-kilo small-sized luggage? That’s perfect for three orders!” he laughs. He has brought some himself to Singapore. (This set up works as long as you don’t have a long layover, he notes.) Just bring it immediately to the kitchen before it defrosts, then cook for 15 to 30 minutes and it’s perfect. (Tinee got away with it but I wouldn’t recommend packing an entire cochinillo for abroad and not declaring it. Just eat it all here before flying.)
For Mother’s Day last year, he wanted to do something special for his mom. Since she loves roast goose, he decided to try cooking the cochinillo using goose fat. So imagine a coming together of roast goose and roast pork. It became such a hit with family and friends that he started making it for them for special occasions.
This Christmas, Tinee is including it in his takeaway menu. It’s a bizarre combination. The skin tastes just like roast goose. Then after you dig in you get all the goodness of pork. Although I’m still a purist and would personally still go for the traditional cochinillo, I think this is worth a try, even just once.
Aside from the cochinillo, he also makes a mean fideua and fabada. These products were inspired by his travels to Spain. He serves fideua, which is similar to paella but uses short noodles instead of rice, because he wanted to serve something familiar but different. He also serves fabada with a unique twist: he uses cochinillo instead of pork. After all, who else can do that? “So it has a smokey touch that no one else can achieve,” he says. “I roast the cochinillo first so you get the smokiness from that. Then cook the fabada overnight. Then put it all together,” he shares.
He now also makes callos that he vacuum-packs so you can just heat it when you are ready to eat it, and raba de toro (Spanish bull tail stew) which will remind you of a Spanish lola’s cooking.
Tinee’s cochinillo has been such a hit he now orders from his pig suppliers almost on a commercial scale.
The only hitch is that you must pick up your orders. Mr. Cochinillo does not deliver. Although in today’s world of Grab Express and Lalamove (he accepts both), nothing is impossible.
You can order at http://www.mrcochinillo.com/order-now/. Or call land line 633-0043, 952-4102 or mobile (0917)545-4888.
Why wait for Christmas? I’m ordering for my family today.
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