I ’d cross continents and climb mountains for pure acorn-fed Ibérico pata negra ham, says Marina O’Loughlin. 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.)
Click here to read Marina’s full article on eating and drinking in Trujillo
At Las Chimeneas, a mountain retreat in the stunning Alpujarras region of Andalucia you can learn to cook some of the region’s finest food (plus Spanish and Moorish specialities) under the tutelage of ex-Moro chef Tom Ryalls. Wander the finca belonging to owners David and Emma Illsley, picking organic almonds or pomegranates, or foraging for herbs before returning to the kitchen to learn how to put them together. Savour a glass of wine and watch Tom build a fire in a hole in the ground before making an authentic shellfish paella (fresh fish and seafood is brought up the winding roads in a little van).
Apart from Tom’s four cookery demonstrations, Alpujarran cuisine is cooked in Las Chimeneas’ kitchen by two local women, with hearty soups in winter and chilled gazpacho or ajo blanco in summer. Take a day trip to village markets to learn about the region’s produce or head out on a short hike to a nearby bar and pair every drink with a free tapa.
In spring, wander amongst almond blossom, in other seasons stride up into the mountains. Or just sit on a balcony, watching the light fall on white villages.
How to do it: Inntravel’s Moorish Flavours of the Alpujarras week costs from £980 per person, including seven nights’ accommodation, most meals, all activities and return transfers to Malaga airport (inntravel.co.uk).
In the fruit and veg section of Palma’s Olivar food market, chef Marc Fosh points out bunches of tomatoes hanging on hooks above the stalls. ‘They’re ramilettes and last for six months when hung properly’, he says. ‘They have very little flesh, just juice and pulp, so they’re only used for pan am boli’ (Mallorca’s toasted rustic bread, rubbed with tomatoes, olive oil and a little salt). Heritage tomatoes are everywhere – beautifully corrugated cor de bou (beef heart) and tomate negro (black). Artichokes spill from crates and piles of oranges are testament to the sunshine and climate that make perfect growing conditions for them.
You can buy everything at Olivar, from Mallorcan olive oil to local cheese, wine, and the famous spreadable sausage, sobrasada. The fish section is the busiest, where everything is still twitching fresh. In the meat section there are stalls selling sheep’s heads, tongues, sweetbreads, and acorn-fed Iberico ham. It’s a good place to meet, shop and grab a glass of wine and some tapas.
Marc’s own restaurant, Simply Fosh, is five minutes from the market and shows touches of his time in San Sebastián – dish descriptions mention chlorophyl, and there are arty swipes on plates, but, importantly, it’s local produce that he likes to cook. Marc makes his own flavoured salts for the table, and serves Mallorcan wine (the main white variety is a drinkable prensal blanc; red is mento negro) in his sleek courtyard restaurant.
The old town of Palma, with its cobbled streets and leafy squares, has a number of fashionable bars and restaurants. Gin has been enjoying a revival in Spain and at Ginbo there are almost 150 to try, all served in wide goblets with plenty of ice.
Nothing could be further from the idea of Mallorca as a cheap and cheerful holiday than the sleek new boutique Hotel Sant Francesc Singular in the Plaça de Sant Francesc. A huge, airy lobby leads into a cocktail bar and Quadrat, the simply designed main restaurant with its own terrace. Cooking is already spot-on and reasonably priced despite its upmarket design and atmosphere – the set menu features cheffy Asian bonito (tuna) with picked veg; sea bream; and a chocolate and orange mousse with light, buttery biscuits for dessert. Rooms are simply decorated, but the rooftop pool is a major draw with its views over the beautiful rooftops and square.
How to do it: Double rooms at Sant Francesc Hotel Singular cost from £148. Return flights from various UK airports to Palma cost from £70 (easyJet.com). More info: visitpalma.com
Andalucia’s best known ingredients are its simplest – gazpacho, ham and sherry. At Finca Cortesin in Estepona – an impossibly stylish hotel squeezed between the mountains and the sea – these ingredients are elevated to a new level.
In the El Jardin de Lutz restaurant, chef Lutz Bösing uses local ingredients to bring new twists to classic dishes: gazpacho is not made with tomatoes but leeks, and topped with Iberico ham and wild flowers. It’s part of a tasting menu that might also include tempura vegetables with truffles, monkfish and quail. The restaurant, like the rest of the hotel, blends traditional and modern, with Portuguese tiles set against a courtyard shaded by 1,000-year-old olive trees.
Part of a vast estate and golf club, the hotel is a long way from the clichéd chintz that might summon up. White walls, terracotta floors, antique wooden doors and huge balconies whisper luxury and space. Food is key, with simple dishes (croquetas, salads, plates of ham) served around the swimming pool and terrace. The hotel is also home to Kabuki Raw, an outstanding restaurant with an open kitchen that balances exquisite Japanese cooking with playful Mediterranean touches. Dinner might include wild shrimp tortilla and tuna belly with tomato and toasted bread.
Jerez is a 90-minute drive away, where earthy sherry bars contrast with Finca Cortesin’s sophistication. A tour of the biggest bodega, Tio Pepe, is a decent introduction to how this fortified wine is made. Taste the range from super-dry, green-apple fino to figgy, sweet Pedro Ximénez, and stop at nearby ham specialist Montesierra , you can buy the perfect Iberico de Bellotta to serve with it at home.
How to do it: Suites from €450 per night, B&B (fincacortesin.com). Return flights from Gatwick to Malaga start from £78 (ba.com).
La Escondida (the hidden one) is a luxury hotel, 35 minutes’ drive inland from Alicante. It opened last October with just 10 rooms, each furnished with original beams and stonework, relaxing, muted colours, and views over a tranquil valley fringed with pine-forested mountains surrounding olive and almond groves and nterspersed with medieval Moorish watchtowers. It comes as a surprise that this isn’t the country’s latest parador, but a new venture from former England and Barcelona football manager Terry Venables and his wife Yvette.
They bought the estate 20 years ago, having fallen in love with the area, with the intention of doing something with it – a soccer school was one idea – when Terry left international football. In the event, they turned to hospitality.
The hotel’s main building was constructed as a hunting lodge in the 19th century. The recent renovations, under the guidance of Yvette and designer Hannah Lohan, have taken this heritage and added subtle contemporary comfort. There are two pools – one outdoor and one in, in a room to the side of which massages and other treatments are available – and many activities available.
Hire a mountain bike and set off on a guided ride through the olive groves and pine forest (unless you want to combust, don’t set off at noon). Or pedal to the markets at nearby Torremanzanas andCocentaina (on Sundays and Thursdays, respectively) to buy olives, salted almonds and handmade sausages.
That the hotel is well managed is scarcely surprising – on our visit, Terry and his wife were serving alongside the waiting staff. Interacting bilingually with the crowd of expats and Spanish locals, Terry often took his instantly recognisable hand’s-on-hips sideline stance as he watched his well-picked team in action.
All of the ingredients for English head chef, Darren Bunn’s, Mediterranean menu are either locally sourced or grown in La Escondida’s garden. Dining is either on the terrace overlooking the valley or in the cool, stone-walled restaurant complete with wooden chairs and tablecloths. We ate our way through most of the menu during our two-day stay: the stars of the show are the starter of beautifully fresh pan-seared scallops, white bean and truffle purée and light-as-a-feather cep foam, the main of delicate saddle of rabbit, intensely savoury potato, parmesan and garlic croquettes, roasted shallots and baby vegetables from the hotel’s own garden. And as for the white chocolate and raspberry millefeuille: back of the net!
How to do it: Double rooms at La Escondida cost from €140 b&b. Return flights from Gatwick to Alicante from £55.99 (monarch.co.uk). More information: spain.info
Compiled by olive’s travel team
Published November 2015
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