I thank author and copy editor, Anneli Purchase, for her help
in the preparation of this blog post.
I can’t speak for everyone, but it seems the whole world knows about the gastronomic miracle in Segovia, Spain: Cochinillo Asado or Roast Suckling Pig cooked in a special oven. The criteria for both pigs and restaurants are very strict. For the pigs: not heavier than 4-5 kilograms, milk-fed only, not older than three weeks, a special breed and a special menu for the feeding mother. Then it’s time for the chef’s talent and the special oven.
In general, the perfectly kept Roman aqueduct in the centre of Segovia would be enough of an attraction to bring in tourism revenue. Moreover, there is also an amazing castle Alcazar located on a cliff, and a massive Gothic cathedral along with a dozen monasteries. But we had never heard about them before, though it seems we always knew about the Cochinillo Asado Segoviano. I wonder why? Spain is so far away.
The traditions of this region of Spain are rampant on the local gastronomic scene and Cochinillo is a magic word here. Segovia is a paradise for meat eaters. Moreover, after visits to Spain it is the first and the only Spanish city where, even after having just had a perfect lunch in a restaurant, you want to go to another one.
There are good reasons why Segovia’s roast suckling pig has become a legend. Chefs use their skills, competing annually to be the best at cooking meat that melts in one’s mouth. Even presidents, writers, and actors come here to try this gastronomic miracle. There are some tips for those who wish to join this great army of gourmets.
How to choose and book a restaurant in Segovia
In fact, the centre of Segovia is full of restaurants serving Cochinillo Asado. If you plan to stay in the city for several days, you’ll have enough time to look around and choose the place suited to your taste and your budget. For example, Restaurante Casa Vicente is not so well advertised, but its cuisine is perfect. The maître-chef personally goes around the visitors, having short conversations with them and wishing them a nice meal.
But if you have only one day, reserve the table in advance, because real roast suckling pig is cooked for several hours. Moreover, Segovia’s restaurants are overfilled with visitors during the dining hours. I think you’ll agree that it is much more pleasant to have a reserved table waiting for you, than to stand in line to wait for a free table. Is the warmed-up dish, cooked the day before, worth flying over the ocean for?
As we knew that we had only two days to spend in Segovia, Spain, the table in the CASA DUQUE restaurant was reserved about three months prior to the trip. It’s much easier. All the surprises are automatically excluded. To be honest, during the reservation on the website, we were more concerned with whether or not we should order the whole pig for the two of us. Could we manage it?
Why CASA DUQUE? Tripadvisor provided us with more negative than positive feedback about Mesón De Cándido, the most famous restaurant in Segovia. The opinions about the other places differed fifty-fifty, which means the game was worth the candles! Taking advantage of reserving the table via the website appealed to us, so we made the choice.
Have you heard the proverb, “You can postpone a war but never a lunch?” It perfectly characterizes Spain. No matter whether you’re tourists or have lived here for a long time, it is a simple rule in Spain and France, and you should know it as well as you know that two and two make four.
Lunch (or comida) takes place any time from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. Empty streets, especially in small towns, unexpectedly empty roads, closed shops… Is it a plague or what? No, it’s just lunch time, siesta. Even the courses in universities have a break from 2:00 till 5:00 p.m. All servants, businessmen and students, doctors and cleanup workers, run to their houses or restaurants at 2:00 to have a solid meal and a couple of glasses of wine. In Spain, this is a time with no business-calls.
Tourists often disregard this traditional mealtime and eat whenever they choose or when they are starving to death! And it is a big mistake, because: first, the quality of food is poorer at this time; and second, the quality of service is poorer as well, because to the Spaniards you’ve become one of those who don’t respect their traditions.
The lunch of real Spaniards consists of a snack (entrada), a salad (ensalada), and a big second course. Sure enough no lunch can do without a glass of wine and a dessert, which is savored during the conversations and coffee. It is no surprise that comida (lunch) lasts for two hours, followed by the vital siesta!
Siesta for chefs and waiters starts a bit later: they have a rest from 5:00 till 8:00 p.m. So, don’t be surprised if you won’t be welcome in a good restaurant—other than fast-food—at 6:30 p.m.
I guess the Americans are really confused when somebody in faraway Europe does not understand their language. Some lose their cool because of it, but does it really make Italy or Spain less beautiful? I am not a polyglot either, but I know for sure that the waiters are really pleased to hear that we at least try to say: Por favor, muchas gracias, señor…
If you know Spanish, I will never believe that they will serve you badly. As for my wife and I, our level of Spanish is “no entendemos nada,” which means we don’t understand anything, and so we experienced it first-hand.
Roast Suckling Pig in CASA DUQUE
The day before, walking along in the city, we found our CASA DUQUE. What for? We intended to try all the best that the Segovia’s restaurants are able to provide, instead of being limited to the tourists’ invention—menu of the day—tomorrow.
That’s why we took a photo of the restaurant menu and later on scrupulously translated it in the hotel with the help of Google Translate, so we knew exactly what we are going to have for lunch tomorrow and were able to order it in Spanish. By the way, this is also very important, because in several restaurants, they gave us a menu in English, but after that the waiter was trying to compare the sequence of the numbers of the dishes on the English menu with the corresponding Spanish dish, and some lapses occurred.
At last, the long-anticipated day came, 01:05 p.m. We are in Casa DUQUE.
“Buenas tardes. I am Victor Tribunsky. I have a table reserved.”
An important-looking gentleman checked the registry, relegated us to the waiters, and at once they accompanied us to the table with the reservation card.
At that moment there were two couples in the restaurant, besides us, and I noticed that reservation cards stood on half of the tables.
The waiter with the menu came up.
“Spanish, please,” we declared fearlessly and proudly.
We fluently announced the rehearsed order in Spanish. We even handled the wine order. I still do not have a clue why in Madrid, Toledo, Avila, or Segovia they do not bring the wine list at once, but Irina questioningly said, “Vino tinto regional” which means “regional red wine,” and with a wave of a hand the second waiter appeared near the table. I guess he was the wine expert.
As we were seriously prepared for this visit, we knew for sure that Cochinillo Asado Segoviano, the giant beans from Avila, the incomparable black pudding Morcilla de Leon, Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero, and Verdejo from Rueda have as much importance for the Castilian culture as Salamanca universities and the Roman churches of Zamora.
“Ribera del Duero Pesquero, por favor.”
Smiles beamed on the faces of the waiters, which is very unusual for the middle-aged Spanish men who perform these duties here. We were pleased with ourselves as well. Seems like lunch will cost a pretty penny, but the key point−is it worth it?−is our approach.
We were served by two waiters at once. The first one prepared the glasses, and the second brought the wine; the first one brought the bread, and the second changed the plates…
Their grip loosened only about 2:30 p.m., when the restaurant was chock full and other customers lined up in the doorway. By that time we had fully relished the show and enjoyed our undisturbed conversation.
But while the Segovia’s Casa DUQUE was almost empty, and the refreshments were not yet served, we set off to take some pictures of the restaurant. Here is that special oven to cook Cochinillo, and the kitchen is right behind. The second floor accommodates the guest hall as well, and the wall along the whole staircase is lined with the awards and diplomas of the local chef.
They have served wine and food. In order to stress the tenderness of the meat with an appetizing brown on top they traditionally cut it with the edge of a plate. This solemn performance was put into practice by senior Candido in his restaurant Mesón de Cándido, and now it is considered a good ritual.
Well, roast suckling pig with a glass of Duraton and a pleasant conversation encourages the recovery of the serenity of mind a lot. Cochinillo is really very tender and tasty, different from the usual pork. It melts in your mouth and the browned crust is so crispy. The special tag attached to one of the legs certifies that this is the right pig, the milk-fed Cochinillo Segoviano that was born eight days ago.
I think such a gentle attitude to the quality of meat is a factor of the nearly perfect taste of Cochinillo Аsado, because the recipe for Segovia’s roast suckling pig itself has no spices, only water and salt. I was not mistaken in saying “nearly perfect.” Pork is pork and this meat is too fat for some people, including me.
But there is a really perfect dish. Having had a hearty meal, we dared to order another traditional dish of Segovia−Lechazo Asado (leg of lamb). We must complete the experiment! Twenty minutes later they brought an amazing, fragrant, and lean lamb’s leg. Meanwhile in order to get back in good shape we drank four cups of cortado, an espresso cut with a small amount of milk.
I was the first to try; then a small piece for my wife. As soon as she tried it she insisted on ordering the second leg!
So as it turns out, you can disregard most of the negative feedback provided by Tripadvisor if you pay close attention to the local traditions. But if your Spanish is absolutely poor and you are sitting in the perfect restaurant and have to make a choice, use “the left hand rule.” It really works! Cover the column of the menu with the dishes’ names with your hand—;you understand none of them anyway—and order the most expensive ones. I am not joking; the taste of the Castilian dishes depends much more on the quality of the ingredients than on the skills of chefs. And recipes of Cochinillo Asado or Lechazo Asado are not that pretentious indeed, but the result is amazing.
By the way, some tips for those who are free enough in organizing the trip to Spain. For eight years already, at the beginning of February, thirty-two restaurants of Segovia, including Casa DUQUE and Mesón de Cándido, participate in a special offer called “Five days El Dorado.” During these five days they give a fifty-percent discount for one of the most famous Spanish dishes—Segovia’s roast suckling pig.