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ROAST LAMB AT THE CASTLE GATE

TEXT:  Tom Burns
PHOTOS:  Carlos Navajas/ICEX

Taken From Spain Gourmetour January-April 98 (pages 17-26)

Tom Burns, intent on a weekend break from Madrid, chose a circular route out of Segovia that took him north across old Castile to the Duero River Valley.  Mixing Cultural and Culinary Curiosity, the plan was to view castles and, between one historic castillo and another, to savor suckling lamb at the nearest asador.

Taking the Arévalo road out of Segovia, keeping close to the Eresma river that gurgles furiously at the bottom of a steep gorge, you instinctively know what lies ahead. High on the cliffs above stands Segovia’s Alcazar, the magic kingdom castle with its slender, slate-roofed white turrets, the genuine article that Disneyland copied. Isabel of Castile, the Reina Católica who united Spain through her marriage to Fernando of Aragon, took possession of her realm from those same ramparts in 1474 and from the battlements she could take in the shimmering plateau that extends north as far as the eye can see, a tableland of cornfields, flocks of sheep, and villages huddled around mighty churches and mightier forts. The landscape that belonged to the age of chivalry and courtly intrigue remains essentially unchanged more than 500 years later.

As you swing left towards Arévalo, the wool-market town where Isabel grew up, climbing out of the gorge and driving under an arch that was built in honor of her great-grandson Philip II who lavishly restored Segovia’s Alcazar, there lie countless more medieval castles and in every village mesón, limitless roast lamb, the byproduct of the wool trade that made Castile rich in the 15th century, awaits the traveler.

Just before the turn there is a monument to Segovia’s, and by extension Spain’s, master roaster, to the most famous mesonero, in the land, to the man known simply as Cándido. Life size and immortalized in bronze, framed by the city’s cathedral that looms above the Eresma, Cándido stands over a table and the inscription reads: “Honor to him who brought honor to Segovia.” In his right hand he holds a plate much like a matador holds his montera or cap when he dedicates a bull’s death to the public and on the table are draped four bronze suckling pigs or cochinillos. Cándidos legendary party trick was to “carve” his cochinillo roasts with a platter in order to demonstrate their tenderness.

ORNATE COCA

Turning off the Arévalo road at Santa María la Real de Nieva you head through woods of pine and black poplars for Coca, the site of one of the most unusual castles in all of Spain and now the home of a forestry school. Coca’s castle, built in the 15th century by the founder of the ubiquitous Fonseca dynasty, is a pristine example of the brick architecture which is known as mudéjar, after the Muslim artisans living under Christian rule that perfected the style. Medina del Campo, the most important town in the vicinity, boasts a similar brick and horseshoe arched fortress called Castillo de la Mota, the castle where Isabel died in 1504, but Coca represents mudéjar military architecture at its ornate best.

The Fonsecas had a castle of great beauty built for them but they must have worried about its fragility. The carefully crafted brickwork is therefore protected by the largest and deepest moat imaginable, and the castle rears up impregnable like a rocky island dominating its own sea. Satisfied with this protection, Alonso de Fonseca, the first lord of Coca and a key advisor to Isabel’s father, Juan II, gained for the town the royal privilege of staging regular wool fairs (the equivalent in medieval Castile to striking an oil well) and he then sallied forth to become archbishop of Seville and then of Santiago. He lies in alabaster and mitered gloiy on the gospel side of the altar in Coca’s impressive parish church.

Why did Alonso go to the expense of having an extraordinary moat dug around his fancy fortress, or why did he want to have a castle built in the first place? What you learn in the parish church, where four Fonsecas are buried, is that these were perilous times. Alonso’s brother Fernando, who occupies one of the tombs, was killed in a battle fought at nearby Olmedo where he arrived at the head of 150 knights to defend Isabel’s claims to the throne of Castile against those of Juana, the disputed daughter of Enrique IV, Isabel's half-brother and a feeble king who was known as the Impotent and said to he homosexual. Femando was killed by a lance thrust delivered by none other than Beltrán de la Cueva, the strong-man of Enriques camp court and the supposed father of Juana who accordingly went down in history as La Beltraneja. Beltrán de la Cueva, Duke of Alburquerque, owned the castle of Cuéllar, half an hour’s drive away and the next port of call.

Coca proudly calls itself the “Cradle of Emperors” which is a fair boast because Theodosius, who ruled Rome from 343 to 361 A.D., was a native son. One suspects, however, that the real claim to the title is that the peerless Cándido, who looked every inch an emperor, was also born in Coca. Cándido, who died in 1994, operated out of his mesón in Segovia, appropriately just by the city’s Roman aqueduct, but he returned frequently to Coca and donated a fountain, called, naturally, the fountain of Teodosio el Grande, to his home town. The fountain, which stood in front of the Fonseca-packed parish church has been replaced by a bandstand and is awaiting a new site.

  WARRING BARONS

  Alburquerque castle in Cuéllar menacingly commands a small and enchanting walled town. Its circular, crusader-style donjon looks, and was intended to look, grim, a far cry from the lightness of Coca, but relief comes quickly once inside the castle’s walls for a loggia, added in the 16th century, turns the forbidding fortress into a relaxed Renaissance residence. The age of enlightened learning left its mark on the castle; it now houses a teacher-training school.

The castle at Cuéllar, like Coca’s and like so many more in Castile, was an insurance for every would-be medieval warlord who sought social and economic advancement at a time of swiftly changing political moods. The Fonsecas prospered—despite temporary upsets caused by the likes of Alhurquerque—and they did so chiefly at the expense of Alvaro de Luna, a rapacious upstart whom they replaced as chief advisor to Juan II.

De Luna, who rose to become master of the powerful military order of Santiago, committed the deadly mistake of engineering Juan’s second marriage to Isabel of Portugal; the new queen, who was to be the mother of Isabel of Castile, lost no time in telling her husband that his favorite was robbing the kingdom (the Fonsecas and other nobles wholly agreed with this view) and de Luna was promptly imprisoned and finally executed in Toledo in 1453. The ruined grandeur of the town of Fuentidueña, where de Luna built a huge hilltop fort and richly endowed the local churches, is a moving testimony to the rise and fall of the baronial class in 15th century Castile. The final expression of the town’s vanquished splendor was the wholesale removal in the 1920s of one of its convents to New York where it was rebuilt in the Metropolitan Museum.

  LAMBS AND WINE

  Fuentidueña, in the valley of the Duratón river, lies east of Cuéllar and forms with it a triangle that has as its apex the spectacular castle of Peñafiel which strategically controls both the Duratón and the Duero river valleys. Close to the all hut abandoned Fuentidueña, you come across lyrically named Sacramenia, a thriving pastoral pueblo that, with seven flocks of some 400 sheep each, has a lot more sheep than inhabitants. “Sacramenia,” wrote Camilo José Cela, Spain’s Nobel prize-winning man of letters, “is a village of fruit trees and white poplars, of pastures and gall oak groves, of holly oak and of hollow, fantastic holm oaks.” Travelers seeking the perfect village asador (restaurant featuring a wood-burning oven) in order to eat the perfect lechazo or suckling lamb, could do a lot worse than to save up their appetite until they reach Sacramenia. The village’s competitive edge over Castile’s other revered roast lamb centers is that nowhere else are so many Churra sheep to be found. Lean, long-legged, with their distinctive black noses and ears, the Churra breed is native to the area. While the better known, and all white, Merino sheep are prized for their wool, the Churra ewes are reared for their milk and for their milk-fed lambs.

Javier and José Carlos González, who own one of Sacramenia’s larger Churra flocks as well as the Mesón González, just off the village square, have the pick of the suckling lambs—18 to 25 days old—that are served up as lechazo asado in an earthenware dish, after roasting slowly in adobe, wood-fired ovens for at least two hours. “All the lechazo needs is a rub of pork fat, salt, and a bit of water,” said Javier. “The flavor comes from the ewe’s milk because she has fed around these hills on thyme, rosemary, and lavender.” That is not quite all a lechazo needs to he turned into a memorable dish. It also requires the skills of an expenenced asador, like Javier’s brotherJosé Carlos, who masterfully uses a long paddle to move the earthenware dishes around the horno or oven so that each leg and rib cage of lamb receives an even roast.

  FRONTIER FORTRESSES

Peñafiel is best approached from the south, arriving from Sacramenia. This ensures the finest view of the town’s extraordinary early 13th century castle. It is strung out, defying time, at the top of a ridge, lording it over the Duero valley and looking down towards the valley of the Duratón. Peñafiel’s castle is one of several awesome fortresses built along the Duero, the river that once formed the border of Christian and Muslim Spain. Traveling east, beyond Aranda del Duero, you come to the stunning castle of Peñaranda del Duero and further up river lie the fortresses of Gormaz and of Berlanga del Duero. The forts are architecturally similar—the towering donjon stands in the center of the long frontline wall—and they served the same defensive purpose. In Spain, these castles, sprawled on the horizon above the Duero, are known as castillos roqueros, castles built on rocky hilltops. “Like dismantled, empty shells, the vast carcasses of extinct beasts—that is how they rule over the bare land and the low unprepossessing villages in which churches and convents preserve the remembrance of former glory,” wrote the Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom (1933) in his book Roads to Santiago.

No longer caught in the cross fire of the Christian north and the Muslim south, the inhabitants of the Duero valley today peacefully spend their time tending acres upon acres of vineyards. Wine buffs need no introduction to the great wines of the Ribera del Duero DO., for Vega Sicilia and Pesquera vintages have become collector items. The mere aficionado, who enjoys his wine as much as the next man, ought to drive from Peñafiel to Roa, detouring off the main road to Aranda, and make straight for a small wine store that stands opposite the church in Roas Plaza Mayor. The store’s owner, Tomás del Val, is the local distributor of wines produced by the Virgen de la Vega cooperative and his Ribera del Duero range of last year’s young wines, crianzas (see Glossary on page 150), and reservas should please most palates and, certainly, all pockets.

Ribera del Duero wines are the lechazos best companion (in Sacramenia the González brothers serve a brilliant Ribera rosé in earthenware jugs) and the traveler who has reached the Duero valley has several choices if he wishes to pursue the suckling lamb experience. El Nazareno, which has moved to spacious new quarters up on Roa’s town walls (from its terrace you can see all the way to the Guadarrama mountains that separate Segovia from Madrid), is one famed local asador and Casa Florencio, in the pedestrian center of nearby Aranda del Duero, is another.

Roa’s Nazareno has two huge roasting ovens, the bigger one has a circumference of more than two meters (almost seven feet), with their bundles of faggots and piles of encina and holm oak neatly stacked against them, in full view of the dining room. In Casa Florencio’s dining room there is a signed photograph of the great Cándido himself that reads: “to my friend and colleague Florencio who roasts the best lamb in Spain. This is said by someone who knows what he says and is able to say it.” Among the fraternity of Castile’s master roasters, such a tribute from Cándido is the equivalent to winning an Oscar.

CASTLES AND ASADORES

From Aranda, those in a hurry can return fast to Madrid along the highway but leisurely castle lovers seeking out Peñaranda del Duero should follow the river valley, along the Soria road, for about a quarter of an hour and then turn left at the town of Vid in order to approach Peñaranda’s fabulous fortress from the best perspective. By far the best route back south, (keeping off the highway) is to head for the mountain village of Maderuelo above the Linares reservoir (turn left at La Venta, halfway between

Vid ana Aranda) and, once there, take a local road that crosses the highway at Bacegillas, and leads to the attractive medieval town of Sepúlveda where the colonnaded Plaza Mayor is virtually lined by asadores.

Those who want to combine a lechazo feast with a castle visit should go to the walled town of Pedraza (see Spain Gourmetour No. 32) and/or to Turégano, both of which lie between Sepúlveda and Segovia. Pedraza’s castle, which comes complete with a drawbridge over a moat and merlon capped turrets, served as prison for two young French princes who were held hostage by Charles V in the 16th century and it was restored to look like a picture book fort by the painter Ignacio de Zuloaga earlier this century. Turégano’s castle, in contrast, is odd because it combines a church and a fortress. Half ruined, the castle would look as fierce as Cuellar's but for the church façade that was grafted onto its keep in the 17th century by the bishop of Segovia who doubled up as lord of Turégano.

Pedraza is a bijou village that is full of antique showrooms and craft shops and, at weekends, crammed with hordes of tourists. The Hostería del Pintor Zuloaga, one of its numerous asadores, has a historical advantage over rival establishments because it was once the local headquarters of the Inquisition. Turégano, much less pretentious, has a lovely elongated square dominated by the castle-come-church and a very popular asador on the plaza called Casa Holgueras that on Sundays is still serving lechazos well after 5 p.m.

From Pedraza and Turégano it is a short drive to Segovia and to the “singular” Alcazar which, as the Castilian writer Dionisio Ridruejo (1912-1975) rightly said “sets Segovia apart.” If you want to retrace your steps in your mind’s eye, climb up to the Alcazar’s battlements, as Isabel la Católica used to do, and take in Castile, from Coca across to Sepúlveda and to the ridges of the Duero Valley on the horizon. If you’re still hungry, Cándido’s suckling pig, as an alternative to lechazo, is a must. At the mesón he founded by the aqueduct they still “carve” the cochinillo with a plate—two smart blows along the spine and four across—using the showmanship that he made famous. The story goes that a plate slipped out of the master roaster’s hand just as he was holding it over a piglet, fresh out of the oven. Thus are traditions horn.

 

Tom Burns u’rítesforThe Financial Times. His latest book Conversaciones sobre la Derecha has completed an acclaimed trilogy that examines the Monarchy, the Left and the Right during Spain’s transition to democracy.

 

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