Extremadura, Spain: Savoring the Tastes
A Fantastic Day Trip to Jerte and La Vera Valleys in Extremadura
By Paul Shoul
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
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.
Cafe Bar Rincon de Yuste
Avda. Constitución, 4 – 10430 Cuacos de Yuste,
+34 927 17 20 57
Pimenton de la vera is unique in a world of sun-dried paprika. Continuing an 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 a male-dominated industry, it is the only female-owned producer in Spain.
Alicia Lopez, the granddaughter of the original founder Salvador Lopez, is at the helm. Let’s 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.
Tips from the princess: “Never store paprika in glass containers, the 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
+34 689 28 21 16
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 a boatload of paprika. Finishing with a platter of an amazing grilled goat. A truly great meal topped off with a shot of Cerza Cherry liquor.
Hotel Palacio Carvaja Giron
Plaza de Ansano, 1
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.
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
Located in the historic center 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 potsticker 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
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
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.
Dehesa de Solana
Ctra. de Cedillo km. 23
10500 Herrera de Alcántara
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 get 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.
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 farmhouse, visit and learn about the curing process, take a carving class with Pepe, and eat your weight in Jamón Ibérico.
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 draws 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 1970s. 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
Calle San Salvador, 7,
06800 Mérida, Badajoz, Spain.
+34 924 03 71 86
This cooking class located right in the city was a fantastic way to learn about the cuisine of 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 a 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