There is no better sound in the world than the unmistakable pop of a cork as it’s pulled from a bottle of wine. Sorry Coca-Cola, but that is what opening happiness sounds like. Last weekend that joyous pop got a run for its money on the happiest sounds scale when I discovered the staccato crunch CLUNK of a cochinillo master chopping through a steaming roast pig with the edge of a plate. It happened in a whirl of porcelain plates and pig pieces and faded nearly as quickly as that pop of the wine cork. But just like the cork’s pop, this sound was the starting bell of something epic.
I discovered the sweet sound of pork chopping plates last weekend during a lunch escape to Segovia, the cochinillo capital of Spain. Last year during my first trip to Segovia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site just 30 minutes north of Madrid, I frolicked through the Disney-like paradise that is this medieval city, climbing the turrets of the palace that inspired Disney’s Cinderella castle and trying not to sing the entire Beauty and the Beast soundtrack while prancing through the surrounding gardens. This year, though, my escape to Segovia was more was much more Ratatouille than Cinderella.
Segovia is known for three things: a gothic cathedral, a castle and roasted suckling pig. It was the last item that I was there to experience. And yes, I say experience because like most of the marvels of Spanish cuisine, there is a process to enjoying Segovian suckling pig. In our go-big-or-go-home case, that process began with the restaurant selection, a decision that, considering we were coordinating between cultures, took days. To fully experience the extravaganza that is true Segovian cochinillo, as the roast pigs are called, we finally made our reservation at the godfather of all suckling pig restaurants, Jose Maria.
It was a Sunday on a three-day holiday weekend and thus the restaurant was packed. Hoards of people braving the abrupt arrival of winter huddled outside the door beneath the bronze of a roasted pig. Inside winter coats doubled as protective padding as we shouldered our way to the bar. The first sign that we had made a superb restaurant selection was the wine. The house red was a perfectly balanced, delightfully smokey and boldly jammy tempranillo ¨de autor,¨ meaning it bucked the general aging times of the Denomination de Origin control and was instead carefully matured to perfection under the close watch of the vineyard’s enologist. This tempranillo-merlot-cabernet sauvignon blend was created specifically for the restaurant by Jose Maria´s own bodega. Put simply, the 2012 Pago De Carraovejas Reserva Ribera del Duero was spot-on.
Just as our wine glasses were emptying, the party of “Don Miguel” was invited into the dining room. We tried not to strut through the restaurant with the air of eliteness implied by ¨Don,¨ which means ¨sir¨ but is reserved for showing the utmost of respect and deference.
As soon as the waiter swiped away the still-life-looking plate of too-perfect apples, the parade of goodness began. If the sheer joy of stepping into a fire-warmed room after day out on the freezing winter hills of Northern Spain could be could be captured in a meal, it would be this one. Our first plates were heavenly forms of ¨platos de cuchara¨ or ¨spoon plates,¨those insides-warming dishes that are eaten with a spoon and make up the staples of the Spanish winter diet.
From a tall clay pot the waiter spooned out gleaming heaps of giant white beans in a pork-meat broth. Tiny treasures of pork ear, blood sausage and chorizo speckled the stew. The smooth beans burst with flavor and the broth! I’ve been dreaming about it for days.
Next came another steaming clay pot, this one bubbling with sopa castellana, a garlic brothy soup with bread, egg and small chunks of cured Spanish ham. Think I can convince my family to adopt Spanish garlic soup as our new Christmas Eve meal? Here’s trying…
As the first plates were cleared away and the second bottle of wine was opened, a short, balding man wearing a pressed white chef’s outfit and a thick orange collar designating him as the “maestro asador,” or Master Roaster, emerged from the kitchen. Jose Maria himself was carrying our cochinillo to it’s cutting station. The pigs used for this delicacy are 22 days old and butchered the morning they are roasted. Salt is the only seasoning added to the pig before it goes into a giant wood-fired oven for upwards of 3 hours. When it emerges the skin is so crisp it cracks like the top of a creme brulee. Below lies a layer of the most succulent pork I’ve ever tasted. But before that scrumptiousness arrived at the table, a show of sorts was in order.
Jose Maria set the shallow clay dish bearing our cochinillo on a small table in the middle of the dining room. With a white porcelain plate identical to those we were eating from in one hand and a large fork in the other, he called the attention of the room with a swift clang of metal on porcelain. Then the plate plunged into the meat, neatly chopping the pig into six large pieces. It was thirty seconds of crisp crunches and sharp clangs of porcelain on ceramic, of blurred white plates and sliding golden meat. It was a perfectly orchestrated dance that marked the closing ceremony of a day-long roasting and the crescendo of a grand meal.
In seconds the entire spectaculo was over. I rushed back to my chair and looked down at the golden, envelope-sized piece of pork in front of me. I happily agreed to a ladleful of au jus and then dove my fork into my first bite of Segovian cochinillo. Only one word could possibly explain the experience: epic.