In the UK the biggest demand for suckling pig comes from the Chinese community. In this, the "Year of the Golden Pig", demand has been especially high. What appeals to the Chinese (they are passionate about food texture) is the crispness of skin - it should be so brittle it cracks like thin ice when you poke it.
Maze executive chef Jason Atherton has just returned from a holiday in the Philippines with his Filipino wife, Irha. There, roasting a young pig, usually over an open fire, is central to any festive meal. In a country of overlapping cultures, the Chinese influence is strong, but never dominant. It's as well to remember that the Spanish have always been as fond of lechón (suckling pig) as the Chinese - the islands were part of Spain's empire for more than 300 years. The indigenous population, too, has its own tradition of hog roasts, preferring to roast a native brown-skinned pig rather than the European breed that they refer to as a mestiso.
Because of its popularity a whole family of recipes has grown up around lechón. One chef stuffs it with a paella-type rice. The internationally recognised Filipino sculptor and gourmet Claude Tayag serves it five ways: crisp roast skin fried belly wrapped in soft tortillas grilled spareribs with aubergines, tomato salsa and coriander a sour soup with the neck, bones and trotters the legs braised with herbs.
Atherton roasts the whole suckling pig, but he also rolls and ties the loins, serving them with a pork liver dipping sauce and a fresh sweet and sour pickle.
To borrow a bit of French slang, Jason Atherton has "rolled his hump". The expression describes somebody who has been around the block a couple of times, or paid his dues. Maze, the grazing restaurant he opened in 2005, was Gordon Ramsay's eighth project and Atherton naturally picks out his name as being most influential in shaping his career.
He could have chosen from an impressive list. A season spent at Ferran Adrià's El Bulli in 1998 taught him that there were no boundaries to a chef's creativity. A stint with Pierre Koffmann, early in his career, gave him a feel for fine French regional cuisine. Spells in the kitchens of Marco Pierre White and Nico Ladenis showed him that there was more than one way to cook three-Michelin-star food. His first head-chef post was working for Oliver Peyton in Manchester he spent four years at the Hilton Dubai Creek, where he taught himself to bake a camel's hump in a clay jacket.
With so much experience behind him, Atherton has learnt how to distil what works and what doesn't. His cooking is clean, flavour-packed and imaginative. Experiment, he says, is important to him and he's constantly trying new things in his kitchen, but he avoids what he calls "bad fusion" - putting ingredients together that don't combine.
His interest in Filipino cooking derives from the personal experience of travelling regularly to the Philippines and discovering its rich culinary heritage away from the tourist trail. "There's no point in going somewhere and just eating in a hotel restaurant," he says.
Boneless loin of "lechón" with green mango pickle
Jason Atherton developed the recipe from one that first appeared in the Filipino Food Magazine and was then reprinted in Slow Food, Philippine Culinary Traditions, a collection of essays and recipes about the islands' food.
Sweet and sour green mango pickle
This is a combination of raw green mango mixed with a sweet confit of vegetables. The vegetable base keeps well and can be prepared as a larger batch.
1 litre water
1-2 bulbs fresh ginger, peeled
2 green papayas, peeled and seeded
1 cucumber, peeled and seeded
1-2 large carrots
2 green (sour unripe) mangoes
50-80ml cane vinegar
Fresh coriander leaves
Make a basic syrup with the water and sugar. When it boils add the fresh ginger (how you shred it or slice it is optional). Leave the pan on the side of the stove. The syrup shouldn't be bubbling.
With a machine if you have one, by hand if you haven't, cut the papaya, cucumber and carrots into ribbons roughly the diameter of fettucine (1).
Add them to the syrup. Leave on the side of the range to simmer for about two hours until the papaya turns "glassy". Cool. This is the pickle base.
Peel and stone the mangoes. Slice as finely as possible (think Parma ham). Shred as for julienne.
In a bowl blend the mango with about half the quantity of pickle. Add the vinegar (2) and chill (3). When serving, decorate with coriander leaves. Allow about two tablespoons of pickle per portion.
Note: this pickle could accompany a whole suckling pig as well as the boned loin.
Preparing the loins
1 suckling pig
4 lemon grass stems
50g finely chopped garlic
About 20 sprigs fresh thyme
Following the natural anatomy of the pig, remove the head, leg and shoulders. Cut off the aitchbone that's exposed.
Split the two sides of the ribs from the belly to the neck.
Remove the two fillets from the chine with the flanks attached. Run the knife through the rind along the top of the back without cutting into either eye muscle (4). Keeping the knife edge towards the backbone, free the eye muscle on one side of the chine. Then following the rib-bones, free the flank (5). Repeat with the second loin and flank. Divide each fillet-plus-flank into two.
Dry the skin on each piece of loin thoroughly. Lay the loin with its flank closest to you and the eye muscle furthest away.
Without cutting into the skin, cut a line through the middle of the flank parallel to the eye muscle.
Laying the knife blade between the flank and the skin, lift off a sheet of flank (6). Lay it on top of the other piece of flank so it lies against the eye muscle (7).
Prepare the lemon grass. The outside is woody and should be removed (8) (use it for stock, soup etc). Cut the tender heart of the lemon grass in two.
Spread the garlic and thyme leaves over the flank (9). Lay the lemon grass along the length of the joint (10). Season with coarse salt.
Roll the loin (11) and tie at 3cm intervals (12).
Preheat a convection oven to 175°C (190° for a conventional oven). Brush the loin with olive oil. Put it in a shallow roasting tin. Bake for about 45 minutes or until cooked through. The skin should be crisp. Baste regularly with oil. Rest. Cut string and carve into thick slices (13).
Baked liver and red wine sauce
(Makes about 250ml)
500g pigs' liver
30g diced garlic
30g diced shallots
150ml red wine
50ml cane vinegar
Cut the liver into small pieces (1-2cm). Preheat the oven to 220°C or hotter. Put the liver in a roasting tin and par-bake it for about five minutes. It won't be cooked through.
Melt the butter in a pan, sweat the garlic and shallots without colour. Add the liver, sugar, wine and cane vinegar. Simmer for five minutes (14).
Liquidize the sauce and force it through a fine sieve or chinois (15). Add water to thin it out a little. Season and reheat. Serve slices of loin with a bowl of the pickle, the sauce separate, and plain rice.
Maze buys its suckling pig from a Lancashire Farm, Pugh's Piglets: 01995 601728 e-mail: email@example.com or go to www.pughspiglets .co.uk.
Size varies from 3.5kg to 9kg.
Whole roasted suckling pig
In the Philippines, the flavouring of the pig changes from region to region and from ethnic group to ethnic group.
or lemon grass
or pepper shallots leeks and lemon grass
or leeks, garlic and lemon grass
or banana leaves
or capsicums, garlic, sugar and lemon grass
According to Filipino cookery writer Myrna Segismundo: "Pepsi is used to bathe pig to give it a good red finish."
Basic preparation for suckling pig
Check there are no residual bristles.
Suppliers may already have washed the carcass. Soaking it for up to four hours in iced water is optional, but whitens the meat.
Wash out the ears, mouth and snout. The eyes should come out, too if they've not already been removed. Wipe the inside of the carcass thoroughly. Dry the outside, essential for the crispness of the skin.
If the pig is going to be presented whole, for instance at a banquet, it may help to wrap the ears and tail in foil.
300ml olive oil
1kg chopped onion, leek and carrot mirepoix
2 garlic bulbs
Three or four stems of lemon grass in pieces
Preheat the oven to 160°C. Pour the oil over the base of a large, heavy-duty roasting pan. Make a vegetable trivet with the mirepoix, garlic and lemon grass. Rub the inside of the carcass with salt and pepper. Lay the pig on the trivet. Brush the skin with oil. Roast for two to two-and-a-half hours.
Baste the skin to prevent it bubbling up. Protect any parts that appear to be roasting too fast with foil.
Ideally the meat in the deep muscle (ie, in the upper leg) will be cooked to a core temperature of 71°C, but providing it has reached this temperature, it may be cooked for longer if the skin has not become completely crisp.