I recently had the opportunity to attend a small festival of food producers in the Extremadura region of Spain with fellow food buyers representing small shops as well as large distributors from around the world. I had never been to Spain before and was thrilled to be able to visit a country with such a rich and diverse culinary history – and to be able to discover new and delicious products for our stores.
After landing in Madrid, we traveled by bus for about four hours to Mérida, the capital of the Extremadura region. The fact that my hosts referred to the bus ride as a short trip, should have clued me in to the fact that this is a large region where what I call long distances are considered short to the locals.
On the way to Mérida, we drove through rocky hills and across expansive plains of deep, golden-hued fields of recently harvested wheat. Here and there were neatly arranged plots of small olive trees with their silvery-green leaves. The vast majority of the land was dotted with large, army-green holm oaks with cloud-like canopies offering circles of shade and respite from the searing sun. These oaks also provided the backdrop for a larger ecosystem supporting cows, sheep, goats, horses and the famous Ibérico pigs. The oaks are important for their role in the production of one of Spain’s most prized culinary exports: Jamón Ibérico de Bellota. The black-hoofed pigs browse the terrain year-round but especially in October and November when the pigs double their weight from 80kg or so to 160kg by gorging on the ripe acorns (las bellotas) covering the ground.
Once in Mérida, I rested at what would be home for the next week – the Hotel Parador – one of the many old convents in Spain converted into a traditionally furnished, yet comfortable hotel. At our first meal, I discovered what would be a common theme throughout my trip: Jamón. Plates of Jamón were invariably offered as part of breakfast, lunch and dinner. Many of the cafés, bars and restaurants had a whole leg of Jamón on display which was hand-sliced into small pieces and laid out in a circular pattern on a plate. Rich and meaty with a complex sweetness, it seemed a brilliant use of two of Extremadura’s most natural resources. One Mérida resident told me, “it is like bread to us,” and I, for one, was glad to have numerous opportunities to sample this exquisite example of Spanish charcuterie.
The food fair itself was a small event with no more than 50 producers gathered to show us their regional specialties. Jamón producers were a large part of the show, but there were also growers, and processors of other products such as olives, olive oils, cheese, figs, rice, almonds, quince, jams, tomatoes and wine. Our group of 50 or so buyers represented more than 30 countries around the globe, all interested in this lesser known, but clearly prolific, food-producing region of Spain.
In addition to being introduced to several passionate producers and their excellent products at the fair, I was lucky enough to connect with the owner of Queseria Berrocales Trujillanos, José Antonio García for a personal visit of his cheesemaking operation.
Ihsan and Valerie, owners of Formaggio Kitchen, were introduced to José Antonio and his cheeses many years ago and today his cheeses represent a cornerstone of our Spanish cheese selection. José Antonio kindly showed me around his production facility, where they were putting the finishing touches on our latest order of Mil Ovejas, Chiviri, El Chamizo, García de Paredes and Cabra Berrocal.
The city of Trujillo was established by the Romans atop a slowly sloping, rocky hill with wide open plains on all sides. This unique geographic situation provided a great deal of security for the castle at the top of the hill. Strong medieval walls further enhanced this security and now acts as the dividing line between the old city, with beautiful buildings and monuments and the new city, which stretches down the hill to the plain below and includes the majority of residents and most of the town’s industry, including José’s company.
After touring the facility, we had lunch at a charming restaurant in the old city, looking out over the Plaza Mayor and the famous statue of Francisco Pizzaro, a former Trujillo-resident and conqueror of Peru. The restaurant was formal and traditional as well as friendly and low-key. The meal started with Jamón and ended with a plate of cheeses including some from Berrocales and a few from other local producers – all delicious.
To finish, we were brought a sampling of three strong drinks including an acorn liquor, an herbal eau de vie and a straight eau de vie. My favorite was the acorn, in part because it was a unique taste of place and because it reflected an industrious spirit to make the most of what you have.
I tasted more wonderful foods over the course of the next few days but, for me, this lunch excursion was truly representative of my time in Spain – delicious, educational and warm with hospitality.
At the end of my visit, I felt very full of Jamón as well as very lucky to have had the chance to experience such a beautiful landscape, rich traditional cuisine and a few of the historical towns offering glimpses of the region’s past and present. I hope to see some of the products I discovered in Extremadura here on our shelves in the coming months.