Segovia, SPAIN - Last September, on a trip with my mom to Spain we took a day trip from Madrid to Segovia. The one thing she kept talking about, besides the aqueduct and the alcazar that supposedly inspired Disney’s rendition of the castle in Sleeping Beauty was the “cochinillos.” An icon of Segovian gastronomy, the cochinillo is simply a suckling pig. Due to the unorthodox timing for meals, from an American’s perspective, and an elderly mother that could not eat rich foods after a certain point in the day, we never did experience the famed cochinillo.
So on this trip to Spain with my family I was determined to make it happen. After a few minutes of research with the aid of Google, I chose Jose Maria Restaurante right off of the Plaza Mayor.
Call it absentmindedness, call it “not really paying attention when your mother is talking to you,” somehow in my mind’s eye I interpreted “suckling pig” as “succulent pig.” Even though the description on the menu described the “cochinillo” as “milk fed only” it still didn’t hit me.
Depending on your placement on the carnivore scale you would consider what happened next either an epicurean revelation or a full blown, gastronomical nightmare. Apparently I am somewhere in the middle.
In the midst of my delightful naivete, whilst sampling Iberian ham croquetas and trying to save my Spanish rosado for the main event, I heard “oohs and ahhs” over my shoulder. I turned to see our waiter flourishing a large plate as if he was revealing the holy grail.
And there it was, right before my eyes, a cochinilllo, a baby pig, no more than 3 weeks old, literally taken from its mother’s breast --hence milk fed only--roasted to a crispy, golden brown. When I expressed my revelation my kids responded, “Mom! Suckling pig! What did you think it was??”
“I don’t know,” I said -- “honestly I didn’t really think beyond the achievement of the experience. How am I going to explain this in my story?”
“I wouldn’t mention it,” my daughter Temperance said as she rolled her eyes and shook her head.
Our waiter, Valentin, a 25 year veteran of this Segovian establishment, then placed the piglet on a large butcher block in the center of the dining room. As part of a ritual to demonstrate how perfectly cooked and tender the meat is, Valentin then handed a thick white porcelain plate to one of the patrons and invited her to crack it’s skull and carve it into quarters for the room full of wide eyed diners.
Once the show was over, a quarter of the “cochinillo” was placed on our table with the little hoof still intact and I must admit it was the most, simple succulent piece of meat I have ever had. Seasoned with no more than salt water, the skin was crispy and light and the juice clear and flavorful. Along with a single bowl of “La Sopa Castellana” - a hearty, large, white bean soup flavored with local ham and sausages, the entire family was positively satiated.
For the grand finale, we shared a slice of another local icon, the Ponche Segoviano, a layered sponge cake with a cream filling, covered in marzipan. And lest we forget what we came there for in the first place, the assistant waiter Daniel swung by the table and gifted the girls with two miniature terra-cotta piggy banks to commemorate the occasion.
If you are interested in trying this at home you can find the recipe here: http://www.restaurantejosemaria.com/cochinillo-asado-segovia/
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