A jour­ney into ja­mon coun­try

Ap­petite whet­ted by the prom­ise of tasty food, BEN WOODS ex­plores Spain’s land­locked Ex­tremadura re­gion

Solihull News - - TRAVEL -

JUAN CAR­LOS pulls a piece of whit­tled bone from his pocket and pierces the sal­low flesh. He re­tracts, lifts the sharp ten­dril to his nose and in­hales. A smile flick­ers across his mouth. Then it’s my turn.

The beef bone – more a gi­ant tooth pick – is plunged back into the meat. He slips it clear and lets it linger be­neath my nos­trils.

The aroma is sweet, woody and salty all at once.

This is ja­mon coun­try, and award- win­ning man­u­fac­turer Juan Car­los is get­ting me ac­quainted with Spain’s most cov­eted of­fer­ings.

To en­counter Spain’s food pi­o­neers, I have taken the road less trav­elled.

While most tourists hug the coast­line, I have headed in­land, driv­ing two and half hours from Madrid to the re­gion of Ex­tremadura, where the sun­sets burn blood red and the land­scape gasps for wa­ter.

To my un­so­phis­ti­cated nose, the ham smells good enough to eat, but it is not quite ready. Like its neigh­bours – some 2,000 joints strung up by their trot­ters in Juan Car­los’ pala­tial cur­ing room – it needs more time to ma­ture.

Ja­mons can be kept in th­ese dark­ened con­fines for up to three years. Age­ing is an in­stru­ment used to coax them to their full po­ten­tial. An­other is the air. Each day Juan Car­los opens the win­dows at Casa Bautista to al­low the wind from the hills to dry the hams nat­u­rally.

His fa­ther’s fam­ily- run fac­tory is nes­tled in Mon­tanchez, swathed in some of the purest air in Europe. To­gether, his sim­ple meth­ods cre­ate flavours wor­thy of a hefty price tag. Th­ese ja­mons can fetch up to € 1,000 (£ 892) each.

I take a sliver of the Iberico Ja­mon de Belotta, a soft ruby red meat flecked with white speck­les.

The spots pep­per­ing the flesh are ev­i­dence of the pig’s strict Span­ish acorn diet.

I also try the Cebo Ja­mon, a slightly tougher meat from a pig fed on grains.

The Iberico has the edge, but what is Juan Car­los’ favourite? He pauses, smiles again. “It is as if you ask what do you like most about your wife, hus­band, sis­ter or brother,” he says.

I bunker down in Tru­jillo, a me­dieval town within reach of a week­end es­cape, but still serv­ing up enough au­then­tic­ity to leave you feel­ing en­sconced in the Span­ish way of life.

A quick jaunt for a morn­ing cof­fee sends me twist­ing around 16th cen­tury con­vents, crum­bling palaces and the rem­nants of Moor­ish mosques. At night, its flag­stone streets be­come oth­er­worldly, when a light haze en­velopes the town and the inky shad­ows take over.

Get­ting un­der the skin of Ex­tremadura’s food scene in­volves jump­ing back be­hind the wheel.

I take a 30- minute drive to the Ro­man city of Cac­eres where I search out Leosetin, an olive oil mer­chant boast­ing a few gongs for its lo­cally pro­duced wares.

The trick to tast­ing, I am told, is to put the tip of your tongue against your top teeth while al­low­ing the oil to ooze to­wards the back of your mouth.

Leosetin’s ex­tra vir­gin va­ri­ety is but­tery and soft, leav­ing a pep­pery sen­sa­tion flit­ting in your throat.

An hour later, I head deeper into the city to seek out the two Miche­lin- star restau­rant Atrio.

The thought of a plate of re­fined Span­ish tapas kicks my ap­petite into gear, but I am not here to sam­ple the food.

I am guided to an el­e­va­tor at the fringes of the restau­rant, which sends me sink­ing to­wards Atrio’s richly re­sourced wine cel­lar.

Here, Chateau d’Yquems rub shoul­ders with Chateau Mar­gaux.

The vin­tages in this vast vault are pre­sented like roy­alty ly­ing in state.

The fol­low­ing day I spend some time get­ting to know Tru­jillo. Its roots reach back to the Ro­man pe­riod, but it was dom­i­nated by the Arabs for five cen­turies be­fore the Chris­tians seized con­trol in 1232.

Pick­ing my way up to­wards the cas­tle, it’s easy to un­der­stand why the town was fiercely fought over. On the ram­parts, the land­scape un­furls into a 360- de­gree vista, barely bro­ken by the sur­round­ing moun­tains.

As a trav­eller, it is a sight to be­hold. As a sol­dier, its strate­gic im­por­tance is plain to see.

Stand­ing on th­ese lofty walls, you could eas­ily spot the sun glint­ing off en­emy ar­mour, or dust swill­ing up from in­com­ing cav­alry.

Come the af­ter­noon, we are ex­plor­ing Tru­jillo’s other his­toric marvel, the con­quis­ta­dors.

I’m get­ting into the spirit of things by stay­ing at a for­mer con­quis­ta­dor’s man­sion, Villa Mori­tos, which is within strik­ing dis­tance of the an­ces­tral home of Tru­jillo’s great­est son, Fran­cisco Piz­zaro.

With lit­tle hope of in­her­it­ing wealth and amid a bit­ter famine, Piz­zaro left Tru­jillo to em­bark on sev­eral risky ex­pe­di­tions in the early 16th cen­tury – one of which even­tu­ally cul­mi­nated in con­quer­ing Peru. His pres­ence, and the ex­ploits of his sol­diers, are seared into the skin of Tru­jillo.

But even if that passes you by, a hulk­ing six- and- a- half- tonne statue of the great man punc­tu­ates the town’s main square.

Bestride his whin­ny­ing steed, the leg­endary con­quis­ta­dor keeps an eye on to­day’s trav­ellers, in­clud­ing the thou­sands that de­scend on Tru­jillo for the an­nual cheese fes­ti­val in the spring.

I am told the smell is just as en­tic­ing as Juan Car­los’ ja­mons.

Juan Car­los with some of his ja­mon

A statue in Cac­eres, a Ro­man city which lies a 30- minute drive away from Tru­jillo

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