By Pete Wolstencroft
Extremadura: even the name is redolent of myths and legends. There are those who believe that the etymology of its name is derived from a Latin phrase meaning a far off and harsh land. Others favour a corruption – from the same language – of a land beyond the Duero River.
Whatever your preference, Extremadura remains a mystery even to the vast majority of Spaniards, for whom it is a place to traverse on the way to the Costa del Sol or Portugal.
That said, it makes sense to deal with some of the basics. Extremadura is the fifth largest of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities. It is bordered by: Castilla y León in the north, Castilla La Mancha in the east, Andalucía to the south and Portugal to the west. At just over 42,000 square kilometres, it is bigger than Switzerland.
“Take two medium sized lizards…”
Comprised of two provinces, Badajoz and Cáceres (respectively the biggest and second biggest provinces in Spain), it is a land of huge contrasts. Many Spanish people cling to the notion that it is a barren desert, riven by poverty and drought: a notion popularised many years ago by the film director, Luis Buñuel whose depiction of rural poverty in the film Las Hurdes – Tierra Sin Pan has overstayed its welcome in the Spanish national psyche.
The truth, as ever, is more nuanced. Cáceres province is a place of cherry blossoms, mountain streams that form waterfalls and swimming holes and some of the most spectacular wildlife in Spain. The city of Cáceres is a place for history buffs. A place of dainty porticoed squares overlooked by imposing granite towers and characterised by the three most typical strata of history in the area: Roman, Visigothic and Moorish. In the Casco Histórico ancient buildings are not set aside as museums, but are incorporated into everyday life. Great palaces are inhabited by mundane arms of the government going about their business – issuing permits, levying fines and collecting taxes.
The presence of the Atrio hotel and restaurant complex, complete with two Michelin stars means that foodies from all over Spain now converge on Cáceres for its cutting-edge gastronomy. It was not always that way. Extremadura does have the reputation of being the poorest region in Spain and its people have long had to make do with the cheapest cuts of meat and lowly offal. The first time I visited the city, I saw a restaurant offering: ‘lagarto en salsa verde’ (lizard in green sauce) and the recipe book I bought on that day features a recipe for this dish – long since made illegal – that starts with the memorable phrase: ‘Take two medium sized lizards…’
If gastronomy is not your thing, you might want to get a breath of fresh air and experience some of the wildlife of Cáceres province. Monfragüe is one of Spain’s newest national parks and among its most spectacular. Most of the action happens at the junction of two rivers: the Tajo and the Tiétar, where serious birdwatchers and those of a more casual bent come together at the cliff face known officially as Peña Falcón, but more popularly referred to as ‘El Salto del Gitano’ (The Gypsy’s Leap).
The ornithological attractions include: large numbers of white storks, almost guaranteed sightings of the much rarer black stork, peregrine falcons and large numbers of griffon vultures. The best time to see the latter is after a heavy downpour. Vultures don’t like the rain and when faced with a soaking will retreat to interior caves to shelter. Once the rain stops and the temperature begins to climb again, these lugubrious birds shuffle to the cliff edge and stretch their wings out to dry in the strengthening sunshine. After ten minutes or so – with flight feathers sufficiently dried out – they launch themselves from the cliff face in a series of test flights. It is a sight that, once seen, is seldom forgotten.
It is a sight that, once seen, is seldom forgotten.
Moving south into Badajoz province, your first port of call may well be Mérida, the capital of the region (though not of the province) and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Outside the city of Rome itself, there is no better place in the world to get an impression of what life was like in the days of the Roman Empire. History flows out of every pore of the city.
Founded in 25 BC as a retirement home for Legionaries who had distinguished themselves in the service of the empire, Mérida – then known as Emerita Augusta – became capital of the Roman Province of Lusitania. Its wealth and status ensured plenty of building work. The old city is still linked to its new counterpart by a Roman bridge. The villas of the merchant classes can still be seen, as can the hippodromes, where a love of chariot racing could be indulged. And visitors to the amphitheatre can still emerge blinking in the fierce sunlight onto the same sand that welcomed the gladiators. It is easy to imagine these ancient warriors casting a prayer to their gods as they wondered what nature of ordeal awaited them.
Outside the city, much of the land is given over to the dehesa – vast groves of holm oak trees that make up the most typically extremeño landscape. The hardy holm oak needs little water, can withstand extremes of temperature and requires so little soil that it is not uncommon to see them growing from barren granite.
Where there are oaks, there are acorns. In hard times, humans have often eaten acorns as a last resort. The post war years of hunger have long gone, but the acorns still provide nourishment to Eurasian cranes, azure winged magpies and, most famously of all, to the black Iberian pigs that roam the dehesa.
This is the Rolls Royce of hams.
You may have had jamón serrano, but believe me, you have not had real thing until you have tried jamón ibérico de bellota. This is the Rolls Royce of hams and comes from those privileged black pigs that have spent the last six months of their lives happily foraging for acorns amongst the holm oaks – little suspecting the fate that is theirs. The most prestigious brands command upwards of €1,000 for a single ham. Expensive it may be, but it is also a lifesaver. True acorn-fed ham not only lowers cholesterol, but it is also known to reduce blood pressure. (I have seen the science and it is true.) But how to tell if your plate holds the real thing or some lesser product? A plate of acorn fed ham can be inverted over one’s head and the ham will stick to the plate – such is the unctuous richness of its fat content. If you don’t want to run the risk of wearing your dinner, there is another test. Take a piece of the fat and rub it between forefinger and thumb. If it is the real McCoy, the fat will disappear leaving you with shiny fingers and the happy knowledge that you are about to indulge in the best ham on the face of the earth.
In this era of Covid–19, any plans to visit Extremadura may well have to be shelved for the time being. But when the pandemic has faded away into the darker cupboards of your memory, why not try a trip to that far off and harsh land? I can guarantee you won’t regret it.