Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Porco Caipira - Brazil's Redneck Pig

Porco caipira
The Brazilian Portuguese word caipira is one of those emotionally-charged words which carry a lot of connotations, both positive and negative. Just like it's nearest equivalents in American English, hillbilly or redneck, it can be extremely perjorative, affectionate, or a banner of pride depending on the context and who is speaking. No one knows what the origin of the word is, though the most authoritative Portuguese dictionaries indicate that it derives from Tupi, one of the languages of Brazil's original Amerindian inhabitants.

In the world of politics or community relations, caipira is generally carry negative connotations, but in the culinary world it is overwhelmingly positive. Think of it as meaning homestyle or country-style. A rustic chicken stew called galinha caipira is one of Brazil's most celebrated comfort foods. But not only the stew is named galinha caipira - the same moniker is given to what we'd call a free-range chicken. A redneck hen, in other words.

Not only hens are redneck or hillbilly in Brazil, though. They have a barnyard cousin known as the redneck pig (porco caipira). And this rural porker has become the flavor of the month - showing up in food magazines and Brazilian food blogs, being featured in food festivals and on chefs' menus. And just in time it appears, for the porco caipira was in serious danger of extinction until its culinary value was recognized by the food community and its genetic importance was recognized by Embrapa, The Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation.

Pigs are not native to the new world. Ancestral pigs lived in almost all regions of Europe, Asia and Africa prior to the European colonization of the Americas, and were brought to the new world by European explorers and colonizers. Over time, many pigs escaped and became feral, often interbreeding with their American cousins, the peccary. Even those which remained domesticated interbred without thought of genetic purity, becoming completely naturalized to Brazilian conditions as a result. This is the porco caipira - a true mongrel, perfectly suited to Brazilian climatic conditions and topography.

In the past 50 years or so, the porco caipira had been losing ground to created-in-the-laboratory breeds of pork that grew faster, were leaner and overall more efficient as sources of meat. Brazil's large meat packers required farmers to provide them with the breeds that gave them the most lucrative product possible, and as a result, the pig that had always been Brazil's pig was in danger of extinction.

Coming to the rescue though, combining their efforts for different reasons, Embrapa and the culinary community seem to have snatched the porco caipira from the jaws of extinction. The agriculture department has recognized that the miscegenated porker is a valuable contribuent to the porcine gene pool, and cooks and diners alike have discovered that porco caipira just plain tastes better than factory pork. For the first time in a long time, the future of the redneck pig is looking quite rosy.

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