The eating of pork is taboo in some religious cultures, but for many others who eat animal flesh, the pig is widely considered the most delicious of meats. Few, if any, cultures have done more to enhance the ultimate deliciousness of this animal than the Spanish. The art of the pig reaches its zenith in Spain and within Spain itself, it is the central, western and especially the southwestern part of the country, specifically the area from around Segovia in to around Guijuelo in western Castilla y Leon down through the entire region of Extremadura and into northern Andalucia around Sevilla where the art of raising , slaughtering and crafting the products of the animal is most revered. To be sure, the Spanish don’t have a monopoly on deliciousness when it comes to pork, but few, such as the Spigarelli Brothers and their Culatelli di Zibello iutside of Parma, Italy, do it as well and in my experience none do it better. The quality comes from several factors. One is the specific breed of pig, the lauded Iberico, a black haired and black-footed wonder of taste. It is the pure Iberico pigs that make the best product and these are made more delicious by what they get to eat – Spanish acorns in the oak dehesas of western Spain. These pigs, called Iberico de Bellota or acorn-fed Iberico pigs, see at least one season in which they feed in these oaken woods. This is enough to give them a distinct and wonderful flavor. Some raise their pigs even longer allowing them to see more time eating acorns and developing that flavor even further.
My son, L.J. and I recently had the opportunity to experience this wonderland of pork up close and in a number of different ways. We flew to Madrid, where we met up with my good friend, “Mr. Spain,” also known as Gerry Dawes. I have been in awe of Gerry’s knowledge of Spain, its foodways, its wines, its culture and its people for some time and both my son and I have experienced first hand in Madrid, his exceptional range of contacts and knowledge. L.J. had also had the good fortune to have accompanied Gerry this past spring on a trip that encompassed parts of Catalunya and across northern Spain into Galicia on a wine-tasting expedition. Arriving early in the morning on an overnight flight from JFK, we took an inexpensive hotel room for a quick nap, shower and breakfast before meeting Gerry and picking up our rental car to head out to the nearby and beautiful city of Segovia, where several treats were awaiting us.
It had been forty years since the first and last time I had visited this marvelous city that is home to one of the finest ancient Roman aqueducts still extant as well as a gorgeous old Spanish Alcazar, perhaps the most famous and beautiful in Spain. As wonderful as those sites are, they were not the main reason for our visit to that fair city. We were there to commence our Quijotean quest for pork and what better way to start than small.
El Mesón de Candido is perhaps the most well known restaurant in all of Spain when it comes to preparing the legendary Cochinillo. For generations they have taken select, tiny, milk-fed piglets and roasted them whole to arrive at what for me, at least, is one of the most delicious foods I have ever eaten. The cochinillo at Mesón de Candido, despite its incredible hype, did not disappoint. The cochinillo was fabulous. The tender, moist meat was crowded with intense flavor, while the skin somehow managed to amplify that flavor and add incredible crunch. This is truly one of the world’s great dishes. Please stay tuned to this blog for more from this sensational meal.
From Segovia, we drove past snow-clad hills and mountains on to the fabulous Medieval walled city of Avila, which is preparing for the 500th anniversary of their native St. Theresa in 2015. The city is full of charm and as the highest city in Spain in terms of altitude, a commanding presence on the plains below it.
Our destination was a generally non-descript hostal by the name of San Segundo. This hostal also had an equally non-descript restaurant, El Rincon del Jabugo, within, but it was this restaurant that was the reason that we had come. Owned by one of Spain’s most colorful, well-known and skilled Cortadors de Jamón, Florencio (Flores) Sanchidrián, and his business partner Benjamin Rodriguez Rodriguez, this destination proved to be both surprisingly commodious and amazingly delicious. Flores demonstrated his stylish techniques for cutting a new Iberico de Bellota from Jabugo. These incredible slices were supplemented by an array of delicious dishes including more stupendous cochinillo and equally fabulous grilled milk-fed lamb ribs amongst others. This meal too, shall see its own post.