This was my first time climbing up the orchard’s terraced slopes to pick the ripest of Spain’s famous cherry crop. I can reach all the dwarf trees’ branches - especially those hanging low with the weight of luscious red fruit. The cool of the night left one side chilled while the other, freshly warmed by the morning sun, is hot and bursting with flavor. Popping one into my mouth, I spit out the pit and chew, letting the juices roll luxuriously over my tongue, the flavors combining into the best cherry I’ve ever tasted.
That was my welcome to the region of Extremadura, also called Spain’s Pantry, for a Farm-to-Table experience that made the over-used expression relevant again. Everything the region is known for – cherries, paprika, cheese, wine and pork was on the agenda – soon to be on the table – of this culinary dream trip.
Spain's Extremadura region hugs the country's western border with Portugal. It goes from mountains down to the rolling, oak tree dotted fields called dehesa, where the famed Jamon Iberico Bellota, or acorn fed, black hoofed pigs live. These pigs are free-range, with one for every five acres. They need that much space because they consume 20 pounds of acorns a day, gaining only one pound for that gluttony. They'll spend at least four months on this diet doubling their weight to 350 pounds before they are ready to butcher.
The hams are then shaped, salted and air dried until what is known as the finest ham in the world is ready for sale. The whole process can take as long as five years! The result is a ham marbled with a monounsaturated fat that is good for you, like olive oil. As each slice melted on my tongue, the incomparable flavors convinced me that feeding them the acorns rich in oleic acid is worth it. Chewing the paper-thin slice released a umami combination of nutty, sweet goodness with the mouthfeel of rich olive oil – delicious!
While searching for the pigs I saw thistles growing wild and learned they were used to make the vegetable rennet for Extremadura’s premier cheese – Torta del Casar. It is a soft sheep’s milk cheese, creamy and rich, served in small rounds with the top cut off so you can dip things into it. It has a pungent aroma, some would say foul smell, and a bitter aftertaste that is moderated with foods and styles of serving. I like it as a vegetable dip, but it is also good breaded and deep fried.
The last ingredient I tasted was smoked paprika made from the red peppers that filled the cultivated fields. Dried over an oak fire before being finely ground, this paprika adds a smoky depth to cheese, stews and soups, while lending a little bit of heat. I use it to flavor an olive oil that is excellent for seafood.
Each of these ingredients, and sometimes a combination of them, are featured in the regional cooking of Extremadura. All were paired with the lush red and refreshing white wines of the region to create the freshest dining experiences.