In the land of flavours

BEN WOODS EX­PLORES TRU­JILLO IN SPAIN’S LAND­LOCKED EXTREMADURA RE­GION WHERE HE DIS­COV­ERS A FEAST OF CULI­NARY DE­LIGHTS

Sunday Herald Life - - TRAVEL FEATURE -

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, 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’s 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 eu­ros (£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’s 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 other-worldly, 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.

What is Juan Carlos’s favourite ham? He pauses, smiles again: ‘It is as if you ask what do you like most about your wife, hus­band, sis­ter or brother’

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 Mar­gauxs. 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 the dust swill­ing up from in­com­ing cavalry.

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

TRAVEL NOTES

A stay in Villa Mori­tos costs from £2,145 to £2,750 per week, sleep­ing eight peo­ple. A stay in the Artists Stu­dio costs £595 per week, sleep­ing two peo­ple, plus a sofa bed. Book through Tru­jillo Vil­las (tru­jillovil­lases­pana.com).

Pho­to­graphs: Ben Woods/PA

Ja­mon man­u­fac­turer Juan Carlos in his cur­ing room Right: Tru­jillo Town

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