The famous Alcazar of Segovia, Spain
Text by Nancy Harmon Jenkins ©2008
The largest of Spain’s Regions, Castilla y León is the northern counterpart to Castilla-La Mancha, both together surrounding Madrid and forming the geographical and political heart of Spain. But Castilla y León is a little different from its cousin to the south. Although, like La Mancha, it starts off as a flat plain, predominantly rural and agricultural, more than a third of the territory is mountainous, while the Duero, Iberia’s longest river flows through the Region from east to west on its way to the Atlantic, providing alluvial vineyard soils for one of Spain’s greatest red wines, Ribera del Duero, as well as for the more recently popular crisp, white Rueda.
There are nine provinces in Castilla y León, most of them historic city-states, some like Segovia with imposing castles, or cathedrals like Burgos, or like Avila surrounded by medieval walls. Since the camino de Santiago, the pilgrim trail from France to far-off Galicia, ran through León, the Region had a long relationship with Europe beyond the Pyrenees; French Cistercian monks almost certainly played an influential role in the development of wine-making along the Duero.
Pork is and has always been the staple of the local diet. Traditionally, the sacrificio (sacrifice) of the family pigs, also called the matanza, took place in winter, after which hams, sausages, and other cured meats hung for months in attics and cellars, developing sumptuous texture and delicious flavors. Today, most pork goes into industrial production, but the results are nonetheless outstanding, especially hams and sausages from the Iberico pig, the prized black pig raised in the western part of the Region, around Salamanca and Guijuelo. Another treasured pork product, a fundamental ingredient in olla podrida or regional cocidos (bean-and-meat stews), is morcilla, plump blood sausage, in Burgos made with rice as a thickener and in León with lots and lots of onions. Cattle are also raised in the Region and used to make cecina, a spiced dried beef that, when well made, is as cherished as jamón iberico. There’s even a cecina made from horse meat, for real connoisseurs.
Still, pork is king, especially in Segovia where the asadores specialize in cochinillo asado, suckling pig roasted until tender enough to cut with the edge of a dinner plate. And if pork is king, sheep are queens of the Castilian table. Another Segovia specialty is cordero lechal, baby lamb, equally succulent roasted in a huge wood-fired oven. And sheep’s milk cheeses are impressive, especially soft, fresh queso de Burgos and magnificent well-aged zamorano, made from the milk of Churra ewes who graze around the city of Zamora. Beans from the Barco de Avila (chickpeas) from Fuentesaúco, lentils from La Armuña, round out the kitchen pantry in Castilla y León.
Iconic Dishes and Products of Castilla y León
Cured pork products: all kinds, but chorizo, morcilla, lomo (cured pork loin), and longaniza in particular, especially when made with Iberico pigs. Hams can be called jamón iberico, jamón de bellota (meaning, free-range pigs finished on acorns), or jamón de pata negra, in which the hoof has been left on the ham to show that it truly comes from the breed of black pigs.
Farinato: a soft-textured, sweet, anise-flavored sausage from Salamanca, often served scrambled with eggs (huevos revueltos).
Sopa de ajo (garlic soup): a hearty soup, thickened with stale bread, redolent of garlic and spiced with pimentón, hot or sweet depending on the cook’s taste. Often an egg is poached in each portion.
Sopa de ajo zamorano: a thicker garlic soup made in and around Zamora, pungent with pimentón and studded with bits of chorizo and other cured pork products. The bread absorbs the broth to the extent that the “soup” is eaten with a fork.
Cocido maragato: another in the series of hearty, filling country one-pot stews. This one, particular to the town of Astorga in León province, has chickpeas and many different cuts of fresh and cured pork.
Wines: Apart from Ribera del Duero and Rueda, there are several other important controlled denominations in Castilla y León. Bierzo, in western Castilla y León, produces crisp whites and hearty reds, the latter coming from the autochthonous mencía grape. Cigales, north of Valladolid, is known for claretes or rosés. While Toro makes hearty reds from tinta de toro grapes, probably a clone of tempranillo.
Cheeses: In recent years some cheese-makers of Castilla y León have begun crafting very high quality, unctuously creamy goat’s milk cheeses. Among the best known in the U.S. market are montenebro from the Tiétar river valley south of the Gredos Mountains and leonora from the province of León. Another fine cheese from the region is Valdeón, a blue-veined mixture of cow’s and goat’s milk. Wrapped in oak or sycamore leaves, it is aged three months in limestone caves until it has reached a creamy texture.