Extremadura, Spain: Savoring the Tastes

Roman Theatre Mérida
Roman Theatre Mérida, Spain.

A fantastic Day Trip to Jerte and La Vera Valleys in Extremadura

Garganta-de-los-Infiernos
Garganta-de-los-Infiernos

By Paul Shoul
GoNOMAD Photographer

The Jerte river feeds the incredibly fertile La Vera and Jerte valleys. This area is famous for growing cherries and the world renowned smoky Pimenton de la Vera.

There are majestic mountains to climb and natural waterfall formations in Garganta de los Infiernos (Hell’s Gorge) nature reserve.

With a lot to see and ground to cover, this trip in a 4×4 jeep with local guides was definitely one of my top ten travel experiences of the year.

Garganta de los Infiernos Guides.
+0034 658 371 626

Fresh picked cherries extremadura
Freshly picked cherries in Extremadura, Spain.

Driving through endless cherry trees heavy with fruit, we stopped to pick some from one of the guide’s orchards.

Extremadura is the largest cherry producer in Spain, they are incredibly sweet, luscious, and even sweeter when you pick them yourself.

Cuacos de Yuste

Somebody forgot to wind the clock in the small town of Cuacos de Yuste in de la Vera.  It felt like a time warp as if nothing had or ever will change here. Nor should it. This is a sweet spot of a town.  Cuacos de Yuste

At the Cafe Bar Rincon de Yuste in the Plaza de Espana, we sat down for a midday beer.  Great local place with superb tapas of migas, (fried breadcrumbs with bacon, garlic and Pimenton), stewed iberian pork, sausages and wild mushrooms with bread.

Tapa tip of the day, pour the juice from the stewed pork into the migas, mmmm.

Cuacos de Yuste
Cuacos de Yuste

 

Cafe Bar Rincon de Yuste

Avda. Constitución, 4 – 10430 Cuacos de Yuste,
Cáceres (España)
+34 927 17 20 57

Pimenton de la vera is unique in a world of sun dried paprika. Continuing and age old tradition, hand-picked peppers are dried over oak fires for two weeks, turned by hand every day. The result is an intense smoky flavor favored by chefs around the world and essential to the cuisine of Extremadura and all of Spain. Las Hermanas Pimentón De La Vera

We visited the Las Hermanas Paprika producers in Cuacos de Yuste. Breaking with the tradition of male dominated industry, it is the only female owned producer in Spain.

Alicia Lopez,  grand daughter of the original founder Salvador Lopez, is at the helm. Lets just go ahead and call her the “Princess of Paprika”.

Every step of the process is done as gently as possible, even the grinders at the factory have to turn slowly to not build up heat and diminish the flavor. She has Pimenton in her blood and is bringing their gourmet brand” Las Hermanas” to a world market in spicy, sweet and bittersweet versions. This a foodie pilgrimage if you are lucky enough to be in La vera.

Alicia Lopez of Las Hermanas. The Princess of Paprika
Alicia Lopez of Las Hermanas. The Princess of Paprika

Tips from the princess: “Never store paprika in glass containers, light diminishes the color. Do not keep it in the refrigerator. Use it within 18 months, buy in small amounts and use a lot, it is full of antioxidants”

Las Palomas Restaurant

Paraje Las Gallardas, 10612
Jerte, Spain
+34 689 28 21 16
Las Palomas

It is hard to beat the view from Las Palomas Restaurant overlooking  the Jerte Valley, but lunch was good enough to make me look away.

We started with Cherry gazpacho, (yup, who woulda thunk it).  It was bright, sweet and cleansing.  Migas, (Fried breadcrumbs) and eggs. A platter of the local Torta del Casar, (a naturally soft cheese, considered one of the best in Spain).

Sweet and savory orange salad with cherry jam and paprika, Patatas Revolconas: mashed potatoes with olive oil, garlic, bacon and boat load of paprika. Finishing with a platter of amazing  grilled goat. A truly great meal topped off with a shot of Cerza Cherry liquor.

chef-dori-las palomas
Chef-“Dori”-las palomas

 

Hotel Palacio Carvaja Giron

Plaza de Ansano, 1
10600 Plasencia
Tel: +34 927 426 326
Hotel Palacio Carvajal Girón

Located right in the center of the old historic center, A fine, elegant, mid sized hotel with spacious rooms and a killer breakfast.

Caceres

Designated a World Heritage City in 1986, Caceres is a lively town with a beautiful plaza and historic quarter of Roman, Islamic, Northern Gothic, and Italian renaissance influence. You must stop here if you are visiting Extremadura.

There is a lot of history to take in walking the streets of this historic city but truth be told it was the eating, drinking and music that are etched in my memory.

Atrio Restaurant Hotel

Plaza de San Mateo, 1
10003 CáceresTel.: +34 927 242 928
Atrio Restaurant Hotel

Chef Toño Pérez Atrio
Chef Toño Pérez. Atrio Restaurant Hotel.

Located in the historic centre of Caceres, Atrio Restaurant Hotel is an island of modern elegance. The architecture of the hotel interior is spectacular.

No less so is the wine cellar, one of the most extensive in Spain. I had the tasting menu for lunch at the two-star Michelin restaurant headed by chef Toño Pérez.

A 12 course meal of small plate flavor bombs conceived by Chef Perez;  his food is an adventure that always references his roots in Extremadura.

Carrot with sea anemone and fennel, taro pot sticker with tomato and cumin, Bloody Mary frozen tomato and green onion ice-cream, marinated shrimp, oyster grilled with white vermouth, grouper ceviche with passion fruit, hake with almonds cauliflower and turnip emulsion, crawfish soup, tuna with sweet potato and Iberian pig jowl and sirloin roasted in a crisp herbal coating. So good.

Quesos del Casar

Carretera Casar-Arroyo, s/n
10190 Casar de Cáceres (Cáceres)
Tel: +34 927 290 596
QUESOS DEL CASAR

Cutting the cheese at Queso del Casar
Cutting the cheese at Queso del Casar

I took a tour of the cheese making facilities. Torta del Casar is one of  the best soft cheeses in the world, vegetarian and made with thistle. This is a cool foodie road trip.

Hotel NH Palacio de Oquendo

Plaza San Juan 11
10003 Cáceres
Tel: +34 927 215 800
Hotel NH Palacio de Oquendo

I stayed in this hotel located just minutes from the Plaza Mayor and had dinner at their restaurant. Marinated partridge pate, Iberico pork salad and cod loin confit, the best I had in Extremadura.

Dinner was accompanied by Flamenco from Al Son De Cajon. An intense and moving concert that had the whole restaurant captivated.

Al-Son-De-Cajon
Flamenco by Al-Son-De-Cajon

 

Jamón Ibérico

Dehesa de Solana
Finca Solana
Ctra. de Cedillo km. 23
10500 Herrera de Alcántara
Cáceres
Tel. 927 49 10 55 / 927 49 12 80

Meeting The Pigs

300 prime Iberico pigs approach like a herd of buffalo, raising dust, hoofs vibrating the earth below our feet.

We are on the pastures of Dehesa de Solana, Jamón Ibérico producers in Cáceres.  Our guide for the day is Pepe Alba, master carver and owner of Turismo del Jamon.com.

The mass grunting and squealing gets closer, we are surrounded. The pigs are happy to see us, a little too happy. “Don’t be afraid” Pepe said with a smile, they are friendly” but don’t let one get a hold of your foot!”

He turns and walks directly through the herd, they follow as he leads them down to the water to wallow In the cool mud. The pied piper of pigs.

Iberian pigs in the Dehesa
Iberian pigs in the Dehesa

For the next 4 hours we are immersed in the world of Jamón Ibérico. Considered by many to be the best ham in the world, it becomes obvious why it is so good and so expensive.

Connected to the Oak Tree Meadows

Black Iberian pigs have been bred here for thousands of years. They are intimately connected to the managed oak tree meadows of the Dehesa. The criteria for achieving the designation of Jamón Ibérico Bellota (the highest ranking) is intense.

As the pigs mature, they are fed on grain, but for the last four months of their lives they feed solely on acorns. They are raised free range with no more than one pig for every two hectares (5 acres) of Dehesa pasture.

During that time they gain over a kilo a day and double in weight. The acorns are high in oleic acid and thus the fat is similar to olive oil, monounsaturated and good for you. Guilt free.

The ham legs are trimmed, shaped and covered in sea salt for 3 weeks, then hung and at specific temperatures and humidity for one to 3 years.

From birth to ham, the process can take 5 years. It is a hefty price of up to 1,000 dollars per leg of Jamón Ibérico Bellota, but once you’ve tasted the buttery feel of the fat as it melts on your tongue and the nutty luscious savory-sweet meat, the price seems like a bargain.

If you are a foodie or just a traveler, this is a must do. You can arrange to stay at the rural farm house, visit and learn about the curing process, take a carving class with Pepe and eat your weight in Jamón Ibérico.

Pepe Alba carves jamon Iberico Bellota

Merida

Merida, the capital of Extremadura, was designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 1993. It is home to some of the finest, most well preserved Roman ruins in the world.

This a special city with plenty of shopping and tapas bars and restaurants lining the historic streets, but the biggest draw are the Roman Gladiator amphitheater and theater, the longest Roman bridge in Spain and the National Museum of Roman Art.

The amphitheaters were excavated in the 1970’s.  Part of the reason they are so well preserved is that until then they were a garbage dump and filled with dirt. Any fan of history or Gladiator movies will be captivated by this site.

Stay and Play

Espezia Cooking Classes

Calle San Salvador, 7,
06800 Mérida, Badajoz, Spain.
+34 924 03 71 86

Espezia Cooking Class
Espezia Cooking Class

This cooking class located right in the city was a fantastic way to learn about the cuisine Extremadura.

It is participatory, the kitchen is decked out with all the tools and ingredients, the knives are sharp and you will eat the fruits of  your labor.

We made Ajo Blanco soup. Pisto de primavera with poached egg. Iberian tenderloin with mushroom and fruit sauce and puff pastry with wild mushrooms. Highly recommended.

Hotel Ilunion Merida Palace
Plaza de España, 19
06800 Mérida, Badajoz
Tel: +34 924 38 38 00
Hotel Ilunion Mérida Palace

  This trip was made with assistance from the Tourist Office of Spain in New York and Extremadura Tourist Board

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Paul Shoul
Paul Shoul is a Northampton, MA-based photographer who doubles as a staff writer for GoNOMAD. For thirty years he's lived in the Pioneer Valley and chronicled life there though his work in the Valley Advocate and Preview magazines. He's also been seen in the Boston Globe, New York Times, BBC, the Chronicle of Higher Education and many other publications. Today as well as shooting around the world for GoNOMAD he works for local nonprofits, banks and advertising agencies.