A passion for pork

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Bernard Farrol, and his wife, Cecilia, have been running Bernard’s Pilipino Specialties in Parkdale for more than 30 years and counting. The couple originally worked as nurses when they arrived in Toronto, but constantly sought new challenges.PHOTO: BEATRICE S. PAEZ

by BEATRICE S. PAEZ

With all that Bernard’s Pilipino Specialties offers, it’s impossible not to make a beeline for the suckling pigs: Just follow the sharp thud of a cleaver pounding wood or the waft of pork roasting away. Pure curiosity or a rumbling stomach will take you past the shelves of canned goods shipped from the Philippines, and straight to the back, where you get a glimpse of the kitchen with crisped pigs lying in sight.

Though those lechon (roast pigs) you’ll see are typically reserved days, weeks in advance of an occasion, the uninitiated or basically any party below 25 – roughly how many people a 33-pound lechon can feed – can choose to dine in or have it to go.

It’s a lengthy process to hit the right temperature of perfection: 12 hours to dry them out, after which they sit in 450-degree heat for about three hours, in between bastings every 30 minutes or so. And that’s not counting the seasoning of the pig.

Bernard Farrol, 82, is still the man behind the specialties: lechon, longanisa (sweet sausage), tocino (cured chicken or pork), chicharon (pork rinds). With help from his wife, Cecilia, and their extended family, Farrol still carries – quite literally – the weight of the business.

Mang Bernard, as he’s known around Parkdale and to his regulars, says a wee little piggy weighs between 30 to 36 pounds and feeds up to 25 people, while a heftier one, at 77 pounds, will satisfy a gathering of 45. Farrol goes for the middle piggy: the 45-pounder. While now too heavy to lift on his own, it’s still the sweet spot for him, because with the 30-pounder, the skin is too thin to turn crisp and when it gets cold it becomes limp, he says.

When people come in for orders, he says, they will often comment about the size. The skinnier the pig, the less crispy they expect it to be. And for many Filipinos, it’s all about the crackle.

The smaller pigs in this case won’t make for good chicharon, cholesterol-laden but tasty cracklings [referred by some as “the popcorn for carnivores”] done to crispy perfection by deep-frying the pork’s skin. And for Farrol, who sells them as a side attraction, he knows they won’t sell as well.

At any given week, save for the Christmas holidays, he has 15 to 20 pigs delivered, made to order. Last Christmas, he prepared about 96 lechons.

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His oven, the Hubbard, can fit up to eight pigs, but Farrol says he typically puts in six pigs to make it easier to flip over. Photo: Marites N. Sison

Farrol says he relies on a simple but tried-and-true recipe of pepper, garlic powder and lemongrass (if requested), but one wonders if he’s remaining tight-lipped about his concoction. He does say he will take special requests for the pig’s seasoning.

His lechon may be the talk of town, but Farrol hadn’t always been the reigning purveyor of suckling pigs.

Farrol and Cecilia, adventuresome and industrious, left the Philippines – something relatively unheard of in the late 1950s – and headed to Australia, to pursue their postgraduate studies. They wed just two days before their departure.

A couple years later, the two were off again – this time they headed for the United States on a student visa at Johns Hopkins University. Much like many other Filipinos at the time whose visas had expired but who were reluctant to return home, they turned to Canada, which would grant them landed immigrant status and a job in the health-care field.

The couple worked as nurses at Toronto Western Hospital for about eight years. They joined other Filipinos who had been welcomed as hospitals in the city expanded, according to Heritage Toronto.

A restless but otherwise settled soul, Farrol had made a home in Toronto with his wife and growing family but seemed to crave new challenges, to see new opportunities.

For years, he and his wife were quietly tucking away their money, without a specific intention formed. As more Filipinos began to make their imprint on the city, they began to note the lack of grocery shops or restaurants catered to Filipinos. And that’s when they decided to cash in on their savings.

It’s been more than 30 years and counting since he and his family set up shop in Parkdale, which was much rougher and grittier than today’s up-and-coming vibe, yet still remains a magnet for new and old immigrants with its more affordable rent and existing networks of support for ethnic groups such as Filipinos, Tibetans, and Tamils.

Before graduating into making his bestseller, he started preparing longanisa – about 3,000 pounds’ worth a week – sweet-sour pork sausages typically eaten for breakfast with a side of egg. He would often enlist his four children to help him prepare it for merchandise.

Asked whether any of them plan to inherit the business, he says ruefully that it’s not likely, “They got tired of packing longanisas and chicharon – and they’re highly educated.”

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When people come in for orders, Farrol says, they will often comment about the size. The skinnier the pig, the less crispy they expect it to be. And for many Filipinos, it’s all about the crackle. Photo: BEATRICE S. PAEZ

But he’s proud of what his children have accomplished and is happy that they’ve found meaningful careers.

In between selling lechon and longanisa, Farrol became somewhat of a real estate aficionado, snatching up undervalued properties and flipping them for profit.

And there lies what boggles many: why is an educated man, much less in his 80s, who’s made an extra living off selling storefronts downtown, content with cooking hefty meat for hours on end?

It’s a hard question that he has no easy answer for, but he does offer that most of the profits that he made off those holdings was used to help build a hospital in the Philippines. He had also attempted to create an organic piggery, which has been a tough industry to resurrect because of expensive feed.

Quiet, humble and unassuming, Farrol has a warm, gentle smile that endears him to those he encounters. He’ll talk eagerly about his passion projects, for which he hopes to reserve enough energy for in the years to come.

Though his body has begun to give into years of stress and strain that comes with cooking for a living – he takes five medications for high blood pressure and osteoporosis – he isn’t quite ready to retire.

But when he does his regulars need not worry – his cousin’s granddaughter, his great niece and her husband plan to take the reins.

Even then he has no plans of fully resting or staying put. His failed attempt to establish the organic piggery in the Philippines still nags at him. And as someone who’s not one to let what he sees as opportunities slide by, it may just be the bookend to his long, varied career.

 

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