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 there for a long time, it is a simple rule in Spain and France, and you should know it as well as you know that the whole world knows about the gastronomic miracle in Segovia, Spain: cochinillo asado (also called tostón asado) or roast suckling pig cooked in a special oven.
Cochinillo asado, or roast suckling pig, is one of the most typical dishes in the cuisine of Castilla, Spain, especially in the city of Segovia. Chefs take pride in the tenderness of their roast pigs and prove how delicate the meat is by cutting the pig with a plate instead of a knife.
The technique is the same as roasting any other kind of meat, and a suckling pig is an ideal centerpiece for a traditional Spanish meal that will impress your guests.
Suckling pigs are much smaller than the pigs we are familiar with that are roasted on an outdoor spit. They are about one-third the size and may be difficult to find in the United States. But it is worth the search, and if you ask your butcher, they will most likely be able to get you one.
On the windswept plateau where Madrid is perched, it is too dry to raise cattle and most crops. So pork has long been a mainstay, from jamón ibérico and charcuterie tapas to stews of pigs’ ears and entrails. But when locals want a really special treat, they go for an entire piglet roasted whole — head, hooves and all — on an oak wood fire.
A suckling pig, as the Spanish define it, has fed only on mother’s milk, has never been allowed to run free, and is no more than a month old. While suckling its young, the mother pig feeds on rye, oats, cabbage and potatoes. A baby piglet is very delicate. Any bacteria or parasite could hurt them. The newborns haven’t built up any natural defenses and they don’t get any vitamins or artificial hormones.
You can find little pigs on display in butcher shops, in the stalls of local markets and occasionally in the windows of restaurants that serve cochinillo. The pig’s skin looks white and waxy; at first you think it is wax, but on closer inspection you see tiny beads of moisture, a sign of freshness.
A roast suckling pig is part of a tradition of farm-to-table eating that’s appeared in literature, from Cervantes to Hemingway, for centuries. The pigs have typically been raised on family farms in the Spanish provinces within about 100 miles from Madrid.
The piglets are slaughtered when they still weigh less than 10 pounds. One cochinillo usually feeds four people. Once the piglets are killed, they are transported to restaurants immediately — so you’re eating an organic pig that was alive at most 24 or 48 hours ago.
There is a layer of fat under the skin, as with duckling, and one test of the skill of the preparation is to examine the underside of the skin. It should be well browned and as crusty as parchment outside, but the underlying fat should have been eliminated, or at least minimized, through long, slow cooking.
Cochinillo asado is usually a special treat to be made for a birthday or at Christmas time. And it’s usually eaten in restaurants rather than at home, because it requires a huge half-dome, open-faced brick oven.
From Puerto Rico to Cuba to the Philippines, roast suckling pig is a national dish, but its origins are in the ancient Spanish kingdom of Castile. For centuries, this part of Castile-Leon, a high plain ringed by the Guadarrama and Morena mountains was part of the Mesta, a federation of nomadic sheep drovers whose tracks crisscrossed the shifting border between the Muslim south and the Christian north. Long after, the area remained famous for its roast lamb, served in simple travelers’ inns known as asadores.
It might seem a bit strange to go halfway across the world just to eat one dish, particularly when that same dish may be readily available in your country, especially when cooking it involves little more than sprinkling it with water and putting it in a very hot oven.
But when the dish is cochinillo asado, and your destination is Segovia, it suddenly makes a lot of sense because this small Spanish city has somehow become the world capital of the meat known locally as cochinillo. Nobody knows quite how it happened.
In the 1930s, a Segovian innkeeper called Don Candido decided to add an element of showmanship to his roast offerings, and the way he carved his suckling pig with the edge of a plate to demonstrate its tenderness caught the local imagination. Soon, every innkeeper in Segovia was doing the same, and the fame of Segovian piglets began to eclipse even its lambs.
There are many ancient recipes for suckling pig from Roman and Chinese cuisine. Since the pig is one of the first animals domesticated by human beings for slaughter, many references to pigs are found in human culture.
Lechón is a pork dish in several regions of the world, most specifically Spain and its former colonial possessions. The word lechón originated from the Spanish term leche (milk), alluding to the immaturity of the piglet. Lechón is a popular item in the cuisine in Spain, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Honduras, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and other Spanish-speaking nations in Latin America. In the former Spanish colony of the Philippines, lechón (Filipino: litsón) is considered a national dish. As the usage of the term has evolved over the years, “lechón” has now come to refer to roasted pig in general (including suckling pigs). Suckling pigs in the country are referred to as lechón de leche, which corresponds to the term cochinillo in Spain.
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 flock to Spain to try this gastronomic miracle.
People are often incredulous that cochinillo is pork; the tenderness of its meat evokes duck or moist turkey, sealed by the crispy outer skin.
Before it goes in, the piglet is butterflied and rubbed with olive oil, garlic, salt and thyme. It cooks in two stages: once for about an hour in a clay dish alongside the fire or on a grate directly on top of it, and later after it has cooled to brown the skin.
Diners should approach the dish with no preconceptions based on the typical American roast of pork. A more apt comparison would be to roast duckling. Although cochinillo doesn’t taste like duckling, it has a similar texture, moist yet chewy, not muscled but not tender to the point of flabbiness; remember, it has had very little time to put on weight.
Wine is one of the most widely accepted drinks to complement roast suckling pigs, according to gastronomic literature. Normally it’s served with special decorations, with an apple on top of the piglet’s mouth being one of the most common forms.
Whether eaten with an apple in its mouth, served with wine or for lunch or dinner, we can all agree that cochinillo asado is a bucket list dish that should be tried at least once in a lifetime!
Cochinillo asado (tostón asado) or roast suckling pig, is one of the most typical dishes in the cuisine of Castilla, Spain.
- 1 small suckling pig (10 lb/4kg maximum)
- 5 oz lard , melted
- 3 cloves garlic , chopped (optional)
- Two bay leaves (optional)
- 1 cup boiling water
- The suckling pig must be at room temperature.
Preheat oven to 300 F / 150 C.
- Open the suckling pig from top to bottom and flatten it with a mallet.
- Prick the skin and head with a large needle or fork. It is very important to pierce the meat so as not to form air pockets and to make the skin crisp and tender.
- Coat all the pork with lard and salt.
- Pour the boiling water into the bottom of a baking dish and place the garlic and bay leaves.
- Then put the meat on top, with the skin facing up.
- Cook immediately for 1 hour, basting regularly. Turn the suckling pig over after 30 minutes of cooking. If there is not enough water in the baking dish during cooking, add a little boiling water as the suckling pig needs this moisture.
Turn the suckling pig over again and finally, in order to obtain a crisp and golden skin, raise the oven temperature to 375 F / 190 C, and cook for another 15 to 20 minutes without turning it over.
- When the skin is golden brown and crispy, serve immediately with fried potatoes.