Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Robert St. John: Porcine Paradise

 Travel is situational. I could almost end this column with that first sentence. That sums up everything I am about to cover in the next 1,000 words or so. But let’s have some fun and flesh out that three-word opening. 

I’ve written countless times over the past 12 years about the long, six-month trip my family and I made in Europe years ago. I hesitate to dive back into that oft-told tale, but it’s key to what follows, so here’s the condensed version for those who may not know. In 2011, my wife, 14-year-old daughter, and 10-year-old son flew to Sweden, bought a Volvo, and spent the next six months traveling to 72 cities in 17 countries on two continents. It was the greatest gift I ever could have ever given to my family. Spending that time with them was the greatest gift I have received. It was so monumental that all things in the life of our family are measured “Before the trip,” and “After the trip.”

Enough of the setup.


During that original trip everyone discovered places that became their favorites. When we left a country I would ask the kids, “OK, what was your favorite city?” A lot of time on the trip was spent discussing favorites. “What was your favorite piece of art in that museum?” “What was your favorite meal?” “What was the favorite dish you ate at that meal?” We all had favorites. I still have favorites— favorite countries, favorite cities, favorite restaurants, hotels, sights, activities, and dishes. But, again, it’s all situational.


One city I may have loved 12 years ago might have slipped a little on the list on subsequent visits due to new things I discovered in a city that wasn’t near the top of the list or challenging things that might have happened in a city that used to occupy a spot near the top. It’s fluid.


That original trip is why I am here today. People started asking to be taken overseas to see things we discovered, and I hosted a group. I thought it would be a one-off, but here I am several years and hundreds of guests later tracing the same route my family took 13 years ago— Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Seville, and Malaga. There were several other cities in the north— Segovia and Bilbao among them— we visited back then, but I only have 10 days with these guests, and we must focus on the lower three quarters of the country.


Years ago, if one had asked me to name my favorite Spanish city I would have quickly replied, “Barcelona,” with Malaga and Madrid not too far behind. But remember travel is situational. If I were to be asked that same question today, I might be hard pressed to name a leader. At best, I would probably rank Malaga and Seville as 1a and 1b.


So, what has changed?

In my eyes nothing has changed in Madrid or Barcelona. I love both of those cities. They each have distinct energies and hundreds of positive aspects that would force me to rank them above many other European municipalities. My favorite tapas bar on the planet— Tapeo— is in Barcelona. It’s not necessarily what has changed in those cities, rather what I’ve discovered and experienced in other places. 


Seville has been ranked a comfortable third place in my book for over a decade. My past two visits here have been game changers. There’s a Saturday night energy in this city that is infectious. Madrid and Barcelona each have distinct energies, but there is something here in Seville that I haven’t been able to quite put my finger on yet. Though it’s grabbed ahold of me and taken root.


The roots are obviously bitter orange roots as there is nowhere one can walk in the Seville city center that doesn’t smell like orange blossoms this time of year. Beautiful.


Possibly what sways this area in current favor is that it is ground zero for Jamon Iberico, Europe’s finest— and the world’s most expensive— ham. On my first visit my son and I traveled north to Jabugo, a small town of around 2,000 people, in an area that is almost solely dedicated to Jamon Iberico production. One premium black label ham can cost up to 500 euros over here and up to $1,500.00 back in the States.


The black Iberico pigs from which Jamon Iberico comes live on a special diet of grains early in their lives and spend the next two years free grazing on grass, chestnuts, roots, and herbs. In the final stages of their life, they feed exclusively on acorns from under cork trees and a couple of other indigenous oaks. The acorn season is long here— October through March. After the salting and aging process, the hams are cured for over two years and the result is unlike any other pork primal in the world.


At Restaurante Las Bellotas in Jabugo, I have twice eaten the finest cut of pork in my 61 years of consuming all manner of swine. It’s not a paper-thin slice of Jamon Iberico, but the presa (a cut beneath the tenderloin and behind the shoulder. Most black Iberian pigs are raised for the hams. But all parts are used over here and so there are always plenty of chops, tenderloins, bellies, and other cuts that have also been grazing on acorns. A presa cut of pork, left in the hands of a Spaniard who knows how to roast it properly is a savory and buttery thing of beauty. Some say it tastes like steak. I say it tastes better than steak. It’s a rare crown jewel in the culinary world.


When it comes to food, I would likely rank Spain a third behind Italy and France— also 1a, 1b situations— but that’s some of the toughest competition in the world. My love for the Tuscan region has not been subject to situational bias. It remains, from the day I set foot in Tuscany, number one in my heart. Though I will take Jamon Iberico over prosciutto every day of the week. That goes for cuts of pork from Iberian black pigs.


Travel is situational. It’s also subjective. One of these days I’d love to write a three-word, one-sentence column, and I might. But these days I’ve got too much to share.



Pork Loin with Prunes

1 each                  Center cut pork loin roast (about 4 lbs.)
2 each                  7 oz. bags dried pitted prunes, rough chopped
1 TB + ¼ tsp       Kosher salt
1 tsp           Fresh ground black pepper
¼ cup                  Extra virgin olive oil
2 cups                  Red onion, small diced
¼ cup                  Dry white wine
2 cups                  Chicken stock 
1 cup          Cognac or Brandy

Preheat oven to 350.

Using a paring knife, cut a slit in the top of the pork loin about 2” in length into the center of the loin, about every 2”. Using 1 bag of the prunes, fill each slit with an equal amount of prunes until they are gone. Season the outside of the pork loin with 1 TB of the salt and the black pepper.

Heat the oil in a roasting pan over medium-high heat. Brown on all sides and set aside. In the same pan, sauté the onions until tender, about 3-4 minutes. Deglaze with the wine and reduce by half. Add the stock and return the pork loin to the pan. Place in the oven until the pork reaches an internal temperature of 145-155, about an hour. Reserve 1 cup of the braising liquid. Transfer the pork to a cutting board and let rest at least 10 minutes before slicing.

While the pork is resting, combine the other bag of prunes with the cognac/brandy in a small sauce pot over high heat. Reduce the liquor until it has almost completely evaporated. Add the reserved cooking liquid and the remainder of the salt and reduce by half. 

Once the pork loin has rested, slice into 1/4“ to 1/2“ thick slices, and top with the prune reduction.

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Trollfest '09

Trollfest '07 was such a success that Jackson Jambalaya will once again host Trollfest '09. Catch this great event which will leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Othor Cain and his band, The Black Power Structure headline the night while Sonjay Poontang returns for an encore performance. Former Frank Melton bodyguard Marcus Wright makes his premier appearance at Trollfest singing "I'm a Sweet Transvestite" from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Kamikaze will sing his new hit, “How I sold out to da Man.” Robbie Bell again performs: “Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Bells” and “Any friend of Ed Peters is a friend of mine”. After the show, Ms. Bell will autograph copies of her mug shot photos. In a salute to “Dancing with the Stars”, Ms. Bell and Hinds County District Attorney Robert Smith will dance the Wango Tango.

Wrestling returns, except this time it will be a Battle Royal with Othor Cain, Ben Allen, Kim Wade, Haley Fisackerly, Alan Lange, and “Big Cat” Donna Ladd all in the ring at the same time. The Battle Royal will be in a steel cage, no time limit, no referee, and the losers must leave town. Marshand Crisler will be the honorary referee (as it gives him a title without actually having to do anything).

Meet KIM Waaaaaade at the Entergy Tent. For five pesos, Kim will sell you a chance to win a deed to a crack house on Ridgeway Street stuffed in the Howard Industries pinata. Don't worry if the pinata is beaten to shreds, as Mr. Wade has Jose, Emmanuel, and Carlos, all illegal immigrants, available as replacements for the it. Upon leaving the Entergy tent, fig leaves will be available in case Entergy literally takes everything you have as part of its Trollfest ticket price adjustment charge.

Donna Ladd of The Jackson Free Press will give several classes on learning how to write. Smearing, writing without factchecking, and reporting only one side of a story will be covered. A donation to pay their taxes will be accepted and she will be signing copies of their former federal tax liens. Ms. Ladd will give a dramatic reading of her two award-winning essays (They received The Jackson Free Press "Best Of" awards.) "Why everything is always about me" and "Why I cover murders better than anyone else in Jackson".

In the spirit of helping those who are less fortunate, Trollfest '09 adopts a cause for which a portion of the proceeds and donations will be donated: Keeping Frank Melton in his home. The “Keep Frank Melton From Being Homeless” booth will sell chances for five dollars to pin the tail on the jackass. John Reeves has graciously volunteered to be the jackass for this honorable excursion into saving Frank's ass. What's an ass between two friends after all? If Mr. Reeves is unable to um, perform, Speaker Billy McCoy has also volunteered as when the word “jackass” was mentioned he immediately ran as fast as he could to sign up.

In order to help clean up the legal profession, Adam Kilgore of the Mississippi Bar will be giving away free, round-trip plane tickets to the North Pole where they keep their bar complaint forms (which are NOT available online). If you don't want to go to the North Pole, you can enjoy Brant Brantley's (of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance) free guided tours of the quicksand field over by High Street where all complaints against judges disappear. If for some reason you are unable to control yourself, never fear; Judge Houston Patton will operate his jail where no lawyers are needed or allowed as you just sit there for minutes... hours.... months...years until he decides he is tired of you sitting in his jail. Do not think Judge Patton is a bad judge however as he plans to serve free Mad Dog 20/20 to all inmates.

Trollfest '09 is a pet-friendly event as well. Feel free to bring your dog with you and do not worry if your pet gets hungry, as employees of the Jackson Zoo will be on hand to provide some of their animals as food when it gets to be feeding time for your little loved one.

Relax at the Fox News Tent. Since there are only three blonde reporters in Jackson (being blonde is a requirement for working at Fox News), Megan and Kathryn from WAPT and Wendy from WLBT will be on loan to Fox. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both and a torn-up Obama yard sign will entitle you to free drinks served by Megan, Wendy, and Kathryn. Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required. Just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '09 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

Note: Security provided by INS.

Trollfest '07

Jackson Jambalaya is the home of Trollfest '07. Catch this great event which promises to leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Sonjay Poontang and his band headline the night with a special steel cage, no time limit "loser must leave town" bout between Alan Lange and "Big Cat"Donna Ladd following afterwards. Kamikaze will perform his new song F*** Bush, he's still a _____. Did I mention there was no referee? Dr. Heddy Matthias and Lori Gregory will face off in the undercard dueling with dangling participles and other um, devices. Robbie Bell will perform Her two latest songs: My Best Friends are in the Media and Mama's, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be George Bell. Sid Salter of The Clarion-Ledger will host "Pin the Tail on the Trial Lawyer", sponsored by State Farm.

There will be a hugging booth where in exchange for your young son, Frank Melton will give you a loooong hug. Trollfest will have a dunking booth where Muhammed the terrorist will curse you to Allah as you try to hit a target that will drop him into a vat of pig grease. However, in the true spirit of Separate But Equal, Don Imus and someone from NE Jackson will also sit in the dunking booth for an equal amount of time. Tom Head will give a reading for two hours on why he can't figure out who the hell he is. Cliff Cargill will give lessons with his .80 caliber desert eagle, using Frank Melton photos as targets. Tackleberry will be on hand for an autograph session. KIM Waaaaaade will be passing out free titles and deeds to crackhouses formerly owned by The Wood Street Players.

If you get tired come relax at the Fox News Tent. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both will entitle you to free drinks.Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required, just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '07 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

Note: Security provided by INS