Soon the land became more arid, and the silky, neon-green rice fields gave way to scrubby bush and tall cactus. Small, open-sided stands began to pepper the roadside, one after the other, with fresh goat carcasses and "goat bacon" (sun-dried carcasses) hoisted under their thatch roofs. For those who pre-fer to purchase their meat on the hoof, the live item was tethered to a post. Interspersed with the stands were paradas, roadside restaurants, advertising stewed goat, oven-roasted goat, and goat picante, the signs showing crude horned silhouettes. We had clearly arrived in goat country.
No, we didn’t want to buy a goat, we told the young man pre-siding over the carcasses at one stand. But where should we eat it? Two ladies walking past piped up: "La Madonna, around the next curve."
I was not convinced: La Madonna’s two open-sided, thatch-roofed palapas were set only a car’s length back from the road, with plastic chairs, tables covered in burgundy leatherette, a healthy population of flies, and no menu; the only main course on offer was goat, either horneado (roasted) or guisado (stewed). We crossed our fingers and ordered one of each, accompanied by tostones (double-fried sliced green plantain), salad, rice, and beans.
Like the goat in luperón, the meat had been roughly butchered here, making bone an expected part of the dish. But this goat meat was different—more tender, and permeated with a rich, smoky, herbal flavor. It was particularly obvious in the simply roasted horneado, which had no sauce to boost its taste. Both ways, it was a knockout, and we left only a pile of well-cleaned bones.
Slight, round-faced, 70-year-old Julián Tatis was the man behind the pots here: "El maestro del chivo," his family calls him. (Also the master of procreation: He’s a father of 20, he told me right off the bat.) People travel for hours to eat at La Madonna, and those who have moved off the island—like the New Yorker sitting at the table next to ours—insist on a visit when they return home. Some weeks, Julián and his assistant cook 100 goats, not just for the restaurant but also to fill orders from people in Santo Domingo and Santiago.
The meat carried the "sabor del orégano," Julián confirms, because the goats did indeed graze on the wild herb. But there’s more to La Madonna goat than that. "This chivo is entirely different from the other chivo," Valentín Tatis said, as he pointed between a pot of horneado and a pot of guisado. He is one of Julián’s sons—two generations of the family work at the parade, and a dozen of them had crowded into the kitchen to watch the gringa learn to cook.
His father decided to test me: "¿Qué pasa con el horneado?" he asked. I stammered back through the various steps for making roasted goat, starting with the lime-juice-and-water bath that rids the meat of any strong smell. As I listed the ingredients for the seasoning mixture, which is then pushed into slits cut in the flesh, Valentín recited each one back at me and Julián just smiled: mucho garlic and black pepper, a little oil and lime juice, salt, crumbled dried oregano leaves, onion, and green pepper.