“Since the time of the Inquisition, what started off in Spain as “mandatory” pork consumption (under the threat of death) has evolved into a true passion.” This quote comes from a Food Network documentary that Magellan and I highly recommend (for those of you going to Spain, considering Spain or thinking about pork for dinner tonight) called From Spain with Love with Annie Sibonney.
The second episode of Annie’s love affair with Spain and pork, (a girl after my heart) is titled A Pig’s Tale and focuses on Segovia, a city we became very passionate about.
Annie says the Spanish have figured out more than a hundred ways to cook pork. In Segovia, they specialize in cochinillo asado—suckling pig—one of Magellan’s favourite dishes.
Not an easy thing to cook well, suckling pig, and I’ve never tried. A friend of my brother’s holds an annual pig roast on his farm near my small hometown, which is where we first tasted suckling pig (pit-roasted) more than 20 years ago. In the 90s, we had suckling pig in Paris at a restaurant praised by food critics. Pink and sticky, it was undercooked and inedible. The meat from suckling pig roasted on a spit (the best way to cook it, I think) that we ate at a big summer party was tasty, but the skin lacked the crispy crackle you want to complement the juicy flavours of the meat. A new restaurant in Vancouver has the same problem.
Annie recommended we have suckling pig at El Porche de Las Casillas, a hay barn converted to a restaurant where suckling pigs are roasted in a wood-burning oven. But it’s in Sotosalbos 20 kilometres outside Segovia, which would have meant no Spanish wine with dinner for Magellan, the driver. Besides, we were there on a Saturday night so El Porche was, naturally, fully booked. So we settled for an old, established restaurant, Casa Duque, in the city. To this day, my taste buds relish the memory of juicy, tender meat tasting of thyme and rosemary and salt and the perfectly blistered crunchy crackle of the skin.
The perfection of that cochinillo asado alone was worth the trip to Segovia. But it’s not Segovia’s main attraction.
That would be its Roman aqueduct. It was built 2,000 years ago when a Roman military base needed water. Emperor Trajan’s engineers constructed a 15-km aqueduct to reroute water to the city from the Rio Frio in the mountains. It’s one of the best-preserved aqueducts in Spain. Quite amazing, as the aqueduct’s granite, bricklike blocks are perfectly held in place—without mortar.
Another of Segovia’s main attractions, El Alcázar, traces its origin to the Roman era when it was a fortress. It was rebuilt during the Muslim rule of Spain as a fortification and in the 12th century as a place. Its mudejar décor, a blend of Muslim and Catholic design found in southern Spain became one of the favourite residences for Queen Isabella the Catholic. Situated on a high rocky point above the city, it commands and deserves attention.
Roast suckling pig, the Roman aqueduct and the El Alcázar: those were the three reasons we chose to visit Segovia.
We found a fourth. Not in any of our guidebooks. Not online. Just by walking and seeing a street sign; Museo de Arte Contemporaneo Esteban Vicente.
Odd that this museo isn’t better advertised. It’s been here since 1998. Esteban was a renowned painter, not just in Spain where he received the Premio de las Artes, but also in the US where he was known among the founders of the New York School and taught at the universities of Berkeley, Princeton and Columbia. The museo is housed in a former palace built in 1455. And Esteban’s work is so good. Look at his art on the cover of the museo’s brochure, painted long before Andy Warhol conveyed the same message. In addition to the permanent collection, the museo features guest exhibitions. How I wished we could have photographed the works of art students who had each created their interpretation of a major work from the Museo Nacional del Prado, the country’s most famous collection of art.
Now excuse me. This little pig’s tale is over. I’m off to market. Not to buy a fat pig, but to Granville Island Public Market to get a little taste of Spain, some jamón Serrano—thin, nutty prosciutto-like slices of Spanish pork.
It’s easy to see why Segovia’s El Alcázar is one of the most visited monuments in Spain.
Since the 1890s they’ve been serving Cochinillo asado at Casa Duque (and it feels like little has changed in the décor since then). We had the menú de degustacion, which includes cochinillo.
Nothing fancy but in a quiet location in the heart of the city (pop. 55,000) offering good value, good service and a nice sun terrace is Hotel Don Felipe.
This entire series is worth watching. Annie Sibonney, who is from Montreal, is a wonderful guide to the food tales of Spain.