‘I’m not scared of the vultures myself. I’m scared they might take one of the dogs.’
Elliot, an ageing Belgian Griffon, stopped in the sun and panted dramatically.
‘How you love the theatre,’ sighed Roque as he scooped up the little canine. Elliot’s concubine, Fanny, ran around as happy and dumb as the day she was born. We were walking off our lunch at the Hoces del Río Duratón natural park. Out 65km north from Segovia - one of Spain’s most romantic towns - a great snaking gorge had been carved out of the earth by the same forces that would, for America, scrape out the Grand Canyon. An emerald green river looped around a scrubby canyon where huge vultures wheeled around thermals above little chapels.
‘Jesus Christ it’s hot.’ My forehead was leaking at a rate that fell just short of Niagra and the area between my legs was busying itself with a rather good impression of a wet sponge. ‘Why the hell did I wear black trousers?’
A few hours earlier Roque, a film and TV director who hailed from the hot desert wastes of Murcia, arrived in his car and picked me up from my little flat in Madrid’s La Latina neighbourhood. The plan was simple: eat the best lamb in the land.
Segovia itself was famed for cochinillo - Spain’s famous roasted suckling pig. I had always found it somewhat underwhelming and basic. In fact, I often felt this way about Spanish roasts. They lacked the trimmings that I so enjoyed and missed from the British ones: lamb with mint, beef with horseradish, pork with apple and then the parade of Yorkshire puddings and vegetables and gravy. Spain’s meats came, quite often, with chips or a few little cooked potatoes. The country’s odd distrust of condiments always struck me as bizarre. I think it was because they held so highly the simplicity and purity of the flavour. I was often unconvinced.
The castle-ridden province of Segovia was well-known, among gluttonous circles, for its figones - a medieval style restaurant that stubbornly hasn’t changed over the centuries. Nowadays the California-craze arses and horrendous beard-sporting hipster classes have minor panic attacks and aneurisms if a restaurant doesn’t have vegetarian, vegan, lactose-free, gluten-free, fun-free, flavour-free items on their lists. Spain, barring its major cities, doesn’t worry itself much over these things. And even Madrid and Barcelona are still playing catch up.
The figón is one rung below tavern in the Spanish ranks. Food is served, yes. But the concept of a menu is somewhat foreign. In fact many don’t even have them. They serve what they serve: usually roasts and then one of two other dishes. And wine, always wine in Spain. One goes to the figón for the dish that that figón serves. And when the tables for the lunch service are filled nobody else is going to sit. You stay for an hour or more until sated and pleasingly tipsy and then wait until dinner service starts up. At La Era de Brieva in the village of Brieva the speciality was roasted lechal (milk-fed) lamb. Rustic and uncomplicated.
In a small English town or village one enters a restaurant to either friendly Englishisms, bored youthful faces or uber-professional customer service led chatter. In Spain you enter shouting ‘hola’ and ‘buenas’ and, in this case of La Era de Brieva, kissing Almudena on both cheeks and shaking Guillermo’s meaty hand. If I were to do this in England I would likely receive anything from blushing faces to a curt knee to the bollocks. Spain was more open like that.
First the bar: two locals were taking some shandies with potato chips in a small space of red walls bedecked with faded nostalgic posters from the seventies advertising everything from the ‘New Seat Toledo’ to Orangina and chocolate spread. Then the dining room: a basic but attractive space of wooden beams and pre-laid tables. For lechal lamb, one had to reserve. This was dead sheep to order.
As Roque had somewhat disingenuously trilled to Guillermo that I was ‘press’, we were initially given a complimentary bubbling cauldron of some of the finest gambas al ajillo I have ever had the pleasure of stuffing in my face. Bright red prawns, half naked, and sizzling in a lake of oil garlic and clippings of dried chilli. Then came the gooey little chicken croquetas that we had ordered. Not overly exciting, but tasty enough. Then more freebies: little bowls of soupy rice with chunks of lobster and tickled rouge with Spanish pimentón.
There was a lull in waitress duties. A recess was needed to give Guillermo time to hack up his roasted lamb. I waddled over burping with an embarrassingly red face - the age old effects of hot oil and hefty red wine. Guillermo was standing next to his wood-fired clay oven and was using some grand and savage-looking scissors to separate the carcass into chunky segments.
‘How long has the little guy been in the oven then?’
‘Oh, three and half hours.’
‘Yes, it’s a long time. We cook it for a long time on a low heat. This way the meat comes out soft but not dry.’ He snipped a juicy flank into two. ‘This is your one.’ He was grinning and his brow shone with sweat.
Now, I don’t know if it is indeed possible for a mouth to have an orgasm but, under the emotional blanket of a fine local wine, I think my palate may well have experienced some sort of sensorial ecstasy during the first few bites. The lamb meat slid off the bone like butter on a warm potato. I don’t remember bothering to use my knife. It was less gamey than older lamb, and was instead sweet and aromatic. The meat was dark and juicy and had cooked so slowly that there were no signs of any affectation by fire or heat. It was embarrassingly good. Having said that, after eating my first great chunk a few steamed vegetables, a glug of gravy and perhaps a restrained dollop of mint sauce to go with the inevitable side plate of chips wouldn’t have gone a miss.
‘All good?’ Cooed Guillermo.
I made a groan and he patted me on the shoulder. We then had homemade desserts and coffees because, you know, in for a penny in for a pound and all that, and then waddled back to the car escorting a mobile orchestra of bum guffs and belches. The dogs approved too; they chewed gleefully on dead lamb bones. I was still not a fully converted Spain roast fan, but my God, out there, in the depths of the Segovia province surrounded by yellow fields, vultures and hidden canyons, I had eaten the best yet.