Nowhere is this alchemy of identification more potent than in jamón ibérico. Ham made from acorn-fed pigs is worshipped throughout Spain, but in Extremadura it is something else, something in the blood. Tell the waiter at Cáceres’s convivial Mesón San Juan that you find the jamón delicious and he will interrupt his flirting to lean in close and gravely whisper the name of the town it comes from. Walk into any overlit, napkin-strewn bar in the region and ask about slicing ham, and the bartender will inevitably tell you that it’s an art, that the cut affects the taste, that there are professional carvers who make a lot of money touring the country—a lot of money. Everyone seems to have memorized the same statistic: Seventy percent of the ibérico produced in Spain comes from Extremadura. Certainly no one here questions it.
Veterinarian José Luis Cortés takes me out to the dehesa—the savanna-like landscape of grassy hills and oaks that serves as free-range feeding ground for pigs during the cold season known as the montanera. He is there to make sure everything goes according to protocol—that the pigs are putting on gobs of weight, that no farmers are sneaking feed in with the acorns and grass. As we approach, a clutch of napping sows roust themselves and snuffle off to a nearby pond. “Acorns have a lot of fat, and they give the ham its sweet flavor,” Cortés explains. “But the pigs also need exercise to work the fat into their muscles.” If he sees a conflict between being a vet and preparing animals to become food, it doesn’t trouble him. “This is our tradition,” he says.
There’s tradition as well in Montánchez, where another of those mysterious Extremaduran microclimates creates ideal conditions for curing. The town’s narrow, looping streets are filled with curing houses, most of them family-run, and to step inside one is to enter a world of sacred rituals. At Casa Bautista, I watch a family—parents, children, grandparents—spend their Sunday morning buying a jamón ibérico. They bring to the task all the intensity an American would put to the purchase of a new car. There are educated questions, multiple sniffs of the plastic pipette the shopkeeper inserts into each leg, heated consultations between husband and wife.
The connection between land, animal, food, and culture culminates in jamón. Traveling through Extremadura, I detect the contours of this nexus everywhere—in the sight of townspeople gathered around the carcass of a just-slaughtered pig; in the approving nod I get every time I order ibérico. But once again it takes my philosopher-chef to bring me to the heart of it. “Tell me about the ham,” I say, and the light grows brighter in Toño Pérez’s eyes. He has just finished lunch service, and although at five in the afternoon the last customers are still trickling out, he has exchanged his whites for a sweater and jeans. By now, I understand the deep resonance a single product has for the identity of a people and their connection to the land. And so, when Toño’s answer comes, I understand that we are talking about more than just cured meat; we are talking about Extremadura itself. “Ah, jamón,” he exhales. “Jamón is God speaking.”
Toño Pérez and José Polo recently started converting two historic buildings in the old city into a boutique hotel (and the new location for Atrio). Until it is finished, by summer of 2010, the Parador de Cáceres (011-34-927-21-17-59; parador.es), a 14th-century palace with a lovely sienna-colored patio, is the city’s most charming place to stay. A few yards up the hill from Trujillo’s Plaza Mayor, the NH Palacio de Santa Marta (011-34-927-659-190; nh-hoteles.es) has tastefully revamped another historic building and added modern amenities. Rooms at the Hospedería del Real Monasterio de Santa María de Guadalupe (011-34-927-367-000; monasterioguadalupe.com) can be, appropriately, somewhat spartan but are nevertheless attractive and offer an unsurpassed chance to stay at an active monastery. In Jerte, the Hotel-Spa Tunel del Hada (011-34-927-470-000; tuneldelhada.com) is a cozy country inn with upscale touches and gorgeous views of the valley filled with cherry trees.
With two Michelin stars, Atrio (Avenida de España 22; 927- 242- 928), in Cáceres, is a delight, from the lush, formal décor to the deeply flavored dishes coming out of the kitchen. The wine list might be the best in Spain. For a more casual option in Cáceres, Mesón San Juan (Plaza de San Juan 3; 927- 626- 648) serves straightforward tapas, such as perfectly sautéed porcini with garlic, in a lively tavern atmosphere. In Trujillo, both Restaurante Pizarro (Plaza Mayor 13; 927- 320- 255) and Mesón la Troya (Plaza Mayor 10; 927- 321- 364) are good places to try traditional Extremaduran recipes like migas and the comforting stew known as caldereta. For slightly more sophisticated cuisine, the Hospedería del Real Monasterio (see above), in Guadalupe, is best. Restaurante Nardi (Braulio Navas 19; 927- 481- 323), in Hervás, is an appealing place to try lighter, updated takes on such regional classics as zorongollo (a marinated salad of roasted red peppers) and crisp-skinned suckling pig.