The "Dehesa" landscape of Extremadura, Spain
Text by Nancy Harmon Jenkins ©2008
Southwestern Extremadura is probably the least known region of Spain, even to most Spaniards. The origins of the name are obscure and many reasons are given. The least likely, but most attractive, is that extra madura, meaning “extra hard,” is an accurate description of this harsh, arid region of high plains intersected by steep mountain ranges. Interestingly, it’s also the region from which came the original conquistadores, the harsh, hearty men who first explored the Americas.
Despite the unyielding nature of its terrain, Extremadura is home to three of Spain’s greatest gastronomic products—jamon ibérico, which many claim is the finest ham in the world; torta del Casar and La Serena, rich, creamy cheeses that have captivated cheese-lovers world-wide; and pimentón de la Vera, smoked paprika, enthusiastically adopted by chefs and cooks inside and outside Spain for its delicate fragrance.
Wild Iberian pigs in the Dehesa of Extremadura
Sparsely populated, Extremadura has two provinces, Badajoz to the south and Cáceres to the north, and a number of beautiful old towns, including Roman Mérida, with its 15,000-seat amphitheater and arched bridge across the Guadiana River, living evidence of the breathtaking scope of Ancient Rome.
Iberian pigs were already a significant part of the Extremaduran landscape even in Roman times. These black pigs are an ancient breed and the dehesa, extensive forests of scrub oak and cork trees, are their preferred pastureland. Their hams—variously called jamón ibérico, jamón pata negra (black-foot ham for the dark hoof that is left attached to the ham to guarantee its origin), or jamón de bellota (bellotas being the acorns on which the pigs range freely during the last months of their lifespans)—are cured in salt, hung in airy spaces for several months, then transferred to cellars for further aging before they are sent to market. The result is a dark, velvety meat with a characteristic umami, that Japanese fifth sense that translates as mouth-filling meatiness, the epitome of fine ham.
Torta del Casar from Cáceres and its cousin La Serena from Badajoz are two of Spain’s rarest, most unusual, most sought-after cheeses. Often compared to Vacherin Mont d’Or, they’re actually very different since they’re made from raw sheep’s milk, specifically the milk of merinos, traditional wool sheep that yield small amounts of rich milk. The cheeses are curdled with vegetable rennet from wild thistles which gives them a subtle but pleasant bitterness. Aged 60 days, they have a creamy texture that, at its optimum, is almost unbelievably unctuous—spoonable at its finest.
Finally, pimentón de la Vera, a brick-red smoky paprika produced in the Vera valley of northern Extremadura, where the rainy climate does not permit open-air sun-drying of peppers typical of other types of pimentón. Instead the peppers, hot, mild, or in-between, are harvested when ripe and dried slowly over smoky oak fires, then ground to a powder. The resulting pimentón has all the rich flavor of fine capsicum peppers with the additional smoke flavor to tease the palate.
Iconic Dishes and Products of Extremadura
Sausage: Besides jamón ibérico, all kinds of other sausages are made from the meat of these prized pigs, including lomo (loin, cured like a sausage), chorizo and salchichón (salami-like sausages), morcón (like chorizo but with less fat), and even morcillas (blood sausages). As with other types of pigs, everything is used but the. . . squeal.
Ibores: the other great cheese from Extremadura, this one is made of raw milk from local goat breeds--Serrana, Verata, and Retinta. A semi-hard cheese, Ibores is often rubbed with olive oil and pimentón, then aged at least 60 days to produce a zesty, aromatic, and buttery cheese.
Migas: An ancient peasant dish that is found all over Spain, especially in the south and west. In Extremadura, stale bread is dampened, then crumbled and fried with plenty of garlic and shreds of jamón ibérico, along with pimentón, hot or mild according to taste. Incredibly simple, humble, and delicious.
Zarangollo: potatoes fried in olive oil and topped with a sauce of roasted red peppers and tomatoes.
Frite extemeño or caldereta: meat of a young goat, along with its liver, chopped small and braised with red peppers, tomatoes, onions, and a good dose of spicy La Vera smoked pimentón, both hot and mild.
Faisan or perdíz a la Alcántara: pheasant or partridge cooked Alcántara style, rich with port wine or oloroso sherry, local truffles, and jamón. This is the opposite end of Extremadura’s culinary spectrum which tends more toward rustic peasant cuisine. Curiously, this became a gastronomic favorite in France after the Napoleonic wars.
Pan de Cáceres: a delicious snack, tapa, or a go-with for some of the region’s richest cheeses. Cáceres “bread” is really a sweet paste of dried figs with ground and crushed almonds.
Licores and aguardientes: In the high mountain valleys of nothern Extremadura, the tradition of producing distilled spirits from various fruits, such as figs, green apples, and especially cherries from the Valle del Jerte, is robust and the products are exquisite with the true flavors of the fruits.