I ’d cross continents and climb mountains for pure acorn-fed Ibérico pata negra ham. Once tasted, it’s hard to go back to lesser animals fed on grains, or prosaic white-hoofed porkers: the fragrant meat and the fat vanishing on the tongue with a back note of clean, porcine sweetness. It’s healthy even– the monounsaturated fat bursting with oleic acid; only olives have more.
Just a few Spanish regions boast the holm oak trees (encinas) and open pastures necessary for the feeding and rearing of this most coveted beast. Extremadura is one of these. From our temporary home, the gorgeous Villa Moritos at the very pinnacle of the equally beautiful medieval town of Trujillo, we can see miles of those plains to as far as Portugal. We’re going to eat ourselves some ham. All the ham.
This plan is executed easily. Everywhere, from restaurants to tiny cafés, offer plates of the stuff, freshly carved to order. Our first stop, just off the main square, is Corral del Rey. After the inevitable jamón, I have Ibérico pork secreto (the shoulder cut that, with its liberal marbling of fat, has sometimes been called pork wagyu) thickly dusted with another of Extremadura’s hero products – sweet, smoky pimentón de la Vera, and grilled over encino, the very wood that fed it – a wonderfully symmetrical cooking method. Despite being one of the swishest restaurants in town, the three-course set meal costs, with drinks, a gentle €23. We soon discover the norm is €10-15; it’s easy to eat well on very little here.
All the steep, narrow roads seem to lead to Plaza Mayor, the main square, with its ravishing conquistadors’ mansions.
There’s Cerveceria for beers and the locals’ favourite dish, migas – paprika-laced breadcrumbs fried in pork fat, studded with chorizo and topped with a frilly fried egg; a reminder that, in a poor area, nothing must be wasted, even stale bread. When I ask for pan con tomate, I get toast and strawberry jam. With chips. (Worth it for the laughs.)
More ham, served with shavings of foie gras, makes a surprisingly luxurious snack from rough-and-ready Nuria. We also have a sparky tuna, roasted pepper and avocado salad (our first vegetables and fish), and some crisp fried chipirones – meat is the hero round these landlocked parts. I wish we were staying long enough to try the weekly baby kid roasted in the wood oven.
But it’s difficult to tear ourselves away from Villa Moritos: not only is the garden a fair approximation of paradise but, in the shade beneath a leafy trellis, the Trujillo Villas’ cook, Belen, dishes up feasts. She lays the table with tiny empanadillas, the crisp pastry filled with juicy spiked pork; stout, ham-flecked croquetas; a wobbly tortilla made with eggs from their own hens; lomo de bellota; and salads of beans, potatoes, ham and roasted peppers. It’s finished with a flourish: sweet local cherries and sheeps’ milk cheese, torta del casar. Blimey. This is so potent, so oozing, that it makes époisses look like Dairylea. To try to contain its pungency, it’s packed, like a replacement organ, in polystyrene – it almost jumps out to meet us.
I hardly ever eat ‘at home’ during these trips, but after a visit to Montánchez, the area’s mecca of jamón production, there’s nothing I’d rather do than sit on our villa’s spectacular terrace and stuff my face with acorn-fed ham while fat bees buzz round riotous blooms. We’ve been to famed Casa Bautista to study the process, an alchemical combination of pedigree animals, atmospheric conditions, time and the most tender loving care. (Obviously, we buy a whole leg to send home.) With a trip to nearby vineyard Habla, we wind up with the ingredients for the emperor of all backyard picnics.
Trujillo’s restaurants are happily rustic, dependent on a wood grill and fryer for many of their treats. For lovers of swank, nearby Cáceres is where it’s at. The beautiful, ancient walled city is Spain’s capital of gastronomy for 2015, so we’re pretty excited. We have reservations at a local hero, the two Michelin-starred Atrio, a serene beauty with a remarkable wine cellar. It’s a oenophile’s fantasy with 50 vintages of Mouton Rothschild, a dizzying 75 of Yquem stored in its own special room and every single Burgundy Grand Cru.
The food is just as exquisite. Chef Toño Perez gives us a VIP option of dish after dish from the contemporary ‘tasting’ menu – fat red prawns interspersed with bonbons of Ibérico pork and a crunchy ‘dust’ of toasted cornbread, the heads served in a separate bowl for sucking; and ‘daring’ fried oysters in strawberry sauce with kimchi paper – and the ‘timeless’ menu – roasted suckling goat on creamy potatoes and a heady 24-hour reduction of meat juices. The ice cream is made from torta del casar, and the wine pairings are suitably ambrosial.
Extremadura’s history of poverty is, paradoxically, one of the reasons its treasures are so perfectly preserved. I’m disappointed that its name doesn’t actually mean ‘extremely hard’, testament to the difficulty of living off these dusty plains (it’s something to do with being beyond the Duoro river, apparently). But it’s from poverty that the conquistadors escaped to conquer the New World, fortified, no doubt, by pig products. It was a Trujillan, Maria de Escobar, who first introduced wheat to the US: tiny Trujillo has a huge influence.
Our last night is spent on the terrace of homely La Alberca Asador (Calle Cambrones 8; 00 34 927 322 209), overlooked by two ancient clock towers. Meat rules as ever at this wood grill, and the menu boasts a multitude of recherché porcine cuts – secreto, pluma, presa, solomillo – flamed over encina wood. You can have egg and chips as a starter, or torta del casar pooled over toasted bread and dusted with pimentón de la Vera (as, of course, I do). We finish off with a sultry-sweet liqueur made from those essential acorns. The area may have been poor, but it’s rich in many other meaningful ways.
Three-night stays at Villa Montos cost from £1,500 for up to eight people (trujillovillasespana.com). Return flights from Stansted or Manchester to Madrid cost from £50 (ryanair.com). Car hire costs from £25 for three days (holidayautos.co.uk). More info: turismoextremadura.com
Written October 2015
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