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Spain: Gastronomic Extremadura

Spain: Gastronomic Extremadura
The region's 'unofficial emblem' is the acorn; indeed, grazing Iberican pigs snuffling for acorns are a common sight. The animals' destiny is to become the famed jamon Iberico de bellota- the rich taste is attributed to the pigs' lavish, acorn-rich diet.
The 'king of cured meats' commands a high price: up to 1,000 Euros for a whole ham. The flavour is at once sweet and dense, and the ham has been scientifically proven to lower cholesterol.
Extremadura's approach to food is straightforward- an abundance of simple, exceptional raw materials allowed to shine. Jamón Ibérico is perhaps the best known product of the region, but there are many more which, too often, fly under the traveller's radar.
La Vera, in the North, is responsible for the region's beautiful smoked paprika, whose distinctive tin decorates many a top chef's worktop with its cheery red-and-yellow livery. Even the merest whisper of this crimson dust works true culinary alchemy on a dish.
A thriving artisan cheesemaking tradition is celebrated annually in Trujillo- the 'cradle of the conquistadores'. Offerings range from delicate roundels of goats’ cheese rolled in the aforementioned paprika, to pungent, olive oil-soaked cheeses strong enough to make your eyes water.
The most famous of all are cheeses so liquid as to be pourable- tempting adverts show them cascading onto plates in golden puddles. A personal favourite is Torta de La Serena, unusually coagulated with an artichoke enzyme, hailing from the grasslands in the south of Badajoz.
Luscious, stalkless Picota cherries are beginning to appear in British supermarkets, making their way from the north of Cáceres, close to the charming mediaeval city of Plasencia. Early April sees over a million cherry trees come into blossom in the steep valleys around Valdastillas, drawing tourists from all over the world.
Great foodstuffs are not all Extremadura has to offer, though. As the region's capital, Mérida is packed with decent eateries. Casa Benito is next door to the municipal market in the centre of the city- but is not a place for the squeamish, nor for the vegetarian. This is a place where meat is king- slow braises of oxtail, pigs’ cheeks and the like.
Even the decor is taurine- every available inch of wall space is taken up with memorabilia from La Corrida. Extremadurans are clearly unabashed at the thought of enjoying a steak under the baleful, glass-eyed gaze of the bull's head mounted on the wall.
The culture of great hospitality and a buzzing restaurant scene extends throughout the region, with many bars still providing free tapas with drinks. These 'pinchos' celebrate the produce and area's specialities- perhaps a little plate of paella or a crispy pigs’ ear. Often surprising and always delicious- a motto which surely extends to Extremadura itself.
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12 September 2010
By: Peter Wolsencroft
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