Two vegetarian friends and I were sitting in a restaurant in Segovia for lunch. When the waiter came over, and I was done ordering my food excessively and carnivorously (seafood paella followed by lamb shanks), the vegetarians asked a question. “Your menu doesn’t list the vegetarian items. Is there a separate menu?” The waiter looked sharply at them. “Vegetarian? In Spain, we don’t do!” he declared, and stomped off, leaving them aghast.
Even more so than in other European countries, in Spain, vegetarian food, they ‘don’t do’. Not that you can’t find a delicious gazpacho, or a crunchy salad, but your options will be few and far between. You will inevitably miss out on their main delicacies, which in Castilian regions such as Segovia includes the famed roast suckling pig, known locally as cochinillo asado. A suckling pig, for those of you not in the know, is a piglet that has been slaughtered between the ages of two and six weeks. It is traditionally cooked whole. Rows of these suckling pigs lie with their limbs splayed in shop windows in Segovia, and costumers are encouraged to choose
As tender as it gets
One of the best-known restaurants in Segovia is Jose Maria. Lest there be any confusion about the 40-year-old establishment’s speciality, a bronze pig adorns the external façade of the restaurant. I ordered the suckling pig, and my defeated vegetarian friends ordered salads. The suckling pig tastes different from any other pork dish for two reasons. It is prepared by two to three hours of slow roasting, and the type of meat is very gelatinous because of the amount of collagen present in a pig of that age. The skin is brown and crisp, usually slathered with olive oil and butter. But the meat itself is very tender. The waiter brought us a section of the suckling pig, as even I wasn’t ambitious enough to order an entire pig, which can feed half a dozen people. He then made a great show of refusing to use the knife to cut the meat, instead making incisions with the side of a plate (“that’s how tender it is, isn’t it beautiful!”)
Another good place to try would be the Casa Duque, which was established in 1895, and feeds locals a kind of cuisine that seems to be largely unchanged since it was established — roasted suckling pig slow-cooked on a spit, roasted lamb with rosemary, thyme and garlic, and their version of the cream of crabmeat soup.
Sated with the meal, we then sat with Rebeca Martin Nieto, a tourism guide, sipping on wine as she explained the Spanish relationship to food. “Each meal is an event, and each meal has three courses. Food is a way of life — since many homes in Segovia raise pigs, the suckling pig is a big part of our cuisine.” Since pigs are inexpensive to raise and adaptable in what they eat themselves (“They eat mostly household waste,” Rebeca explains), the pig, far from being a delicacy, is eaten in homes both rich and poor.
The rest of Segovian cuisine has a lot to offer, and can serve as a history lesson in itself. Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities have co-existed through different times of the town’s history. The Jewish community lived in Segovia in the early part of the 14th century. After they had some troubles with the Christian community (what Rebeca vaguely explains as “money issues”), they were segregated in the Jewish Quarters, and their two synagogues converted into churches. In 1492, a law was passed — convert or leave. Most chose to leave, and presently the Jewish community in Segovia is pretty much non-existent. The Jewish influence in the region’s cuisine, however, has stayed on. It differentiates itself with a sweeter seasoning, as can be seen at the Le Casa Mudejar restaurant, set in a charming 15th century building. Trout, a favourite because of its abundance in the nearby river, is served with raisins and honey. Suckling pig is also prepared with sweeter sauces such as dried fruit sauce.
On the other hand, Arabic-influenced cuisine — the food of a community that still lives in Segovia in large numbers — serves up much spicier food such as roasted lamb, known locally as Cordero Lechal. The use of Marzipan — a sweet made with almonds — has been attributed to an
El Alcazar, located in Segovia’s main square, is the best place to sample some local desserts. This is Segovia’s oldest sweet shop, and makes the region’s speciality, Ponche Segoviano, with a patented recipe. El Alcazar’s window display is a series of delicately-balanced silver trays, on which sit gleaming rows of Ponche Segoviano (two biscuits layered with cream, liquor and marzipan), Yemas de Segovia (egg yolk rolled in sugar and cream), and other sugar-laden varieties. A grid of glass globes inside the shop hold candied baubles in an unexpected array of bright colours.
At this point, even the vegetarians had found something to be happy about. Segovia has a lot going for it — unique history, beautiful cathedrals and a castle that was apparently the inspiration for Disney’s iconic castle — but if you’re the type who travels with their stomach as much as their feet, this is an unmissable part of a Spanish experience.