Vien R. Guenther
What to eat when in Extremadura, Spain
Updated: Jan 7
Spain is a country well known as a gastronomy destination, including the region of Extremadura. You may not have heard of that part of Spain, but Extremadura is home to some of the most legendary conquistadors such as Francisco Pizzaro. The region is located in southwest-central Spain, just right across the border from Portugal. Since Portugal and Spain are neighboring countries, their cuisine has similarities, though with different names for their dishes. Like Portuguese, Spaniards also like to dine late at night. They still practice siesta here. Most stores and restaurants are closed in the middle part of the day.
Food in Extremadura was influenced by Christians, Jews and Muslims. Growing up in the Philippines, which the Spanish ruled from 1571 to 1898, I’m quite familiar with Spanish food. In fact, their influence on our food is well-ingrained in us. But as we all know, every region of every country has its own specialty, with common dishes cooked in different ways.
The region of Extremadura is home to three of Spain’s greatest gastronomic products - Jamón Ibérico, cheeses such as Torta del Casar and La Serena, as well as smoked paprika (pimentón de la Vera). Although we only visited this region of Spain, the delicious fare my husband and I found there is quite impressive.
So, after crossing the border to Spain from Portugal, we went into a grocery store to replenish our snacks and drinks and guess what we found? A humongous variety of Jamón Ibérico and sausages. It was enough to distract us from our goal as we looked in awe at the varieties of whole legs of ham they had on the shelves. If only we could get this kind of ham at home, we thought. It made me feel like buying a whole leg and shipping it to the United States.
In Spain, Jamón Ibérico, or Iberian Ham, is a big thing. It is said to be the finest ham in the world. This is not the typical ham found in the United States or other countries. It is a type of cured ham from the fatty leg of a pig. In this case, the fatty leg of an Iberian pig. They are black with black hooves - that’s why they are called "pata negra". Iberian pigs have been bred in Extremadura for thousands of years. These pigs are so revered in their culture and traditions that locals have annual festivals in their honor.
There was no shortage of stores selling mainly these hams. We were amazed! The most expensive of all is the Jamón de Bellota which comes from pure-bred Iberian pigs that are fed mainly with acorns during the last period of their lives, before they head out to the slaughterhouse. Acorns are rich in oleic acid giving the meat a unique flavor and fragrance. These hams are pricey and can go for up to $1,000 dollars per leg.
You might cringe at the price, but that's because there is a long process involved in creating these hams. There is an art to this, from raising the pigs to serving the finished product. The ham is served paper thin, sliced by hand by specially trained carvers.
We got to try it of course but one thing we learned is not to eat it by itself. Locals will probably say, "Que horror!" You have to have wine at least!
SAUSAGES & CHORIZO
When it comes to sausages, Chorizo is the most popular in Spain. Its red color comes from the spice ingredient called pimenton. Before the introduction of pepper in Spain, which happened in the 16th century, sausages were either white or black (due to the presence of blood in it). One sausage product of Extremadura is Morcilla patatera, a combination of pork meat, fat and mashed potatoes. It can be eaten fresh or cooked, served with bread and wine.
PIMENTÓN DE LA VERA - Smoked Paprika
Peppers were first introduced to Ferdinand and Isabella by Christopher Columbus after his second voyage to the new world - America. The Spanish monks cultivated them around the Tietar River in La Vera. Then in the 17th century, the milled powder of the dried peppers called Pimenton de la Vera became part of the Spanish cuisine. These peppers are smoked-dried with oakwood for two weeks turning the peppers by hand every day. Then the peppers were slowly milled to retain their color and taste. It is essential for Spanish cuisine such as sausages, paellas and other dishes.
CHEESES - TORTA DEL CASAR AND TORTA (QUESO) DE LA SERENA
Torta del Casar and La Serena cheeses are Spain’s rarest, most unusual and most sought after cheeses. Both are eaten by slicing off the top and scooping the cheese with a spoon. Torta del Casar is named after its city of origin, Casar de Caçeres. The shepherds used to call this “atortao” or “torta” because it is shaped like a cake. The cheese is made from Merino sheep’s milk (or from mixed breeds) and thistle rennet giving it a sour and tangy taste. It is a soft and creamy rare cheese aged at least 60 days. Good as appetizer, dessert or spread.
Torta de la Serena is made only from Merino sheep’s milk but its origin is from the county of La Serena, hence its name. The cheese was awarded the Protected Designation of Origin by the European Union in 1992. It has a creamy, slightly salty taste and light bitterness. After it its left to mature and harden, it is called Queso de la Serena.
Since we couldn't possibly eat a whole one, we opted to buy a sampler. Each of these cheeses is good with Jamón Ibérico and bread.
- TAPAS & GOURMET FOOD -
Canned sardines, which date back to 1810, were said to have been promoted by Napoleon to preserve them for longer periods of time. No can openers back then, they were just simply opened with a bayonet. By the end of the 19th century, Britain and France had the monopolized sardines on the international market. But Spain and Portugal ousted them.
Sardines were once considered food for the poor, but are now a delicacy in Spain. They were included in the “top culinary trends for 2017” in one of the food magazines. Sardines have many nutritional values including Calcium. In Zafra, we had these sardines on bread with thinly sliced tomato. The combination was simply delicious. It was a complimentary appetizer and we were surprised to be served them at theArco Restaurant.
In Trujillo, we found out that they don't speak English, at least those we tried to speak to. Unless you speak Spanish, asking questions about food here was hard. We learned that lesson when we ordered the tapas meal the first night in Trujillo and we couldn't ask what goes best with Jamon Iberico and sausage. It was late afternoon and most of the restaurants were closed, very few people were out in the plaza as well. The server, a grumpy old man, probably hadn't had his siesta time and was not in the mood to cater at an unusual time. We were a little disappointed.
The next day though, we observed what other diners were having and as the server came to take our order Hermann said, "we will order what they are having," pointing at the next table. Hermann and I grinned at each other, that was no sweat. Trujillo redeemed itself, we were happy with our meal and our choice. We got lucky to find a good restaurant as well.
Eating in Spain is a slow, relaxing event. No one will rush you to leave the table. Spaniards like to linger with their food. We only had five days in Spain and we didn't get a chance to eat much of the traditional food, but here are some of the delicious meals we ate while in Extremadura. In Merida, the restaurant we visited had no English translation of their menu, or even pictures of the dishes, so a server had to get help from someone in the kitchen to explain the menu for us.
We don't usually eat dessert after a good meal, we just don't have room for it, but once in a while we crave it. So even though we were full, we made room for it. Sometimes, we just can't resist it. We had these cheesecake and chocolate cake in Zafra. They were heavy but decadent. A good herbal tea went well with it, for me.
Drinking wine in Spain is of course typical, just like in any other European countries. It's like drinking water for them. One thing, though, that Hermann got into while traveling in Portugal and Spain was having cappuccino, or espresso, after a meal. Also, Hermann was happy to find San Miguel Beer in Spain, which he used to drink for five years living in the Philippines.
To find more of our travel in Spain, check this book below.