A journey through the culture, tradition and flavour of a unique food.
A journey through the culture, tradition and flavour of a unique food.
The ibérico pig and the dehesa itself are the common threads of the Dehesa de Extremadura Ibérico Route which visits the sites where tradition and flavour combine to produce one of the gems of Extremeñan and national gastronomy: acorn-fed ibérico ham and other ibérico pig products.
The Dehesa de Extremadura Ibérico Route Product Club is a private initiative, supported by the Directorate General of Tourism within the framework of the Extremadura Gourmet programme to promote the Ibérico Ham Route, a national campaign that brings together all the Ibérico Ham Designations of Origin of Spain. This Club goes a step further by promoting the culture of ibérico products and the dehesa, expanding their services to offer gastronomy tourism in Extremadura.
RUTA DEL IBÉRICO GUIDE
It brings together the initiatives of a number of companies from the tourism sector and the ibérico industry in any of its stages (breeding, processing, marketing or sale), celebrating the excellence symbolised by the “Dehesa de Extremadura” Protected Designation of Origin mark.
It began as a gastronomy tourism initiative in 2019, bringing together activity companies, expert ham carvers, travel agencies and tourist guides. They have been joined by accommodation establishments, estates, livestock holdings, museums, interpretation centres, restaurants, bars, cafés catering companies, ageing cellars, specialised shops (both physical and online), wine and gastronomy spaces and tourist offices all located in Extremadura.
The dehesa is the natural habitat of the famed ibérico pig. As an ecosystem it is unique in the world in the balance it maintains between the human exploitation of resources and the conservation of the natural environment. It is a traditional sustainable development model that remains relevant today and an integral part of Extremadura’s DNA.
Extremadura has almost a million hectares of dehesa; an exceptional landscape with a wealth of species of flora and fauna along with the ibérico pig. These lands bear the mark of our ancestors who inhabited these lands from the Bronze Age right up to modern times. Prehistoric, Ibero, Roman, Visigoth, Arab and Christian remains abound between the holm oak, cork oak and broom trees. There are also important examples of popular architecture such as zahúrdas (shelters where the pigs sleep) bohíos (types of bothies) and mills.
The “Dehesa de Extremadura” Route promotes this rich gastronomic tradition of the region based around this unique breed appreciate for centuries.
At the Castro Vetón fort in Villasviejas del Tamuja, inhabited from 400 BC to the first century AD, stone carvings of boars have been found, demonstrating the reverence felt for the pig as far back as the Iron Age. From Roman times, vestiges can be found across the Iberian Peninsula (a fossilised ham or ham-shaped coins) and writings from several authors, including Lucius Junius Moderatus who wrote about the biological process of the pig and methods for salting and conserving ham.
We cannot be certain of the origin of the techniques of preparing ham. It is likely they emerged from efforts to find methods of prolonging the conservation of the meat which by Roman times had become quite sophisticated. One legend goes that a pig fell into a lake with a high concentration of salt. The animal, already dead, was removed by some shepherds who roasted some of the meat while they kept other parts aside for the coming days. That was how they discovered the special, superior flavour and that the meat remained in good condition when conserved for a longer period.
Extremadura boasts an ancestral tradition of ham, internationally recognised and renowned for centuries. Our hams are at the heart of many curious historical anecdotes.
Emperor Carlos V developed a taste for this delicacy during his retirement in Yuste, and he passed on his love of Montánchez ham to his son, Felipe II. 19th century British travellers like Richard Roberts and Henry O’Shea also praised the quality of the ham and, aware of Spanish emperors’ love for the product, spoke of recognition it had enjoyed for at least 200 years.
In the 19th century and for much of the 20th century, to talk about ham was to talk about Extremadura as it was prominent at the expos and fairs that began to be organised around the middle of the 19th century.
This ham, spoken of in the chronicles of past centuries, can still be enjoyed in Extremadura with the same aroma as ever and the same exquisite flavour.
Just what is so special about this pig?
The ibérico pig has long, fine and muscular legs. They obtain this unique composition on their daily forages across the Extremeñan dehesa during the montanera, the final phase of breeding when they live free range on the dehesa feeding on acorns and natural grasses.
They sometimes cover several kilometres in a day, rooting in the earth in search of the fruit of the holm oak. For an ibérico pig to gain one kilo in weight they must eat 12 kilos of acorns, which is only possible with an extension of dehesa equivalent to one and a half football pitches per pig. Extremadura is one few placed in Spain where this miracle is feasible.
It is this combination of the acorn-based diet, the ibérico breed and the dehesa that produced the sublime flavour of ibérico products.
Everyone, at least once in their life, should have the opportunity to observe spectacular sight of the ibérico pig in its natural habitat of the dehesa during the montanera phase, rooting in the earth for the oval-shaped treasure on a misty morning as the sun attempts to shine through and provide some respite from the cold of the Extremeñan winter, the silence broken only by birdsong.
DOP “Dehesa de Extremadura” hams and shoulders have pinkish purple meat, marbles with brilliant, aromatic fat. It is less fibrous in texture, unctuous, not excessively salty, even sweet, full of nuance and fragrance with delicious and exquisite aromas that last on the palate as the ham melts in the mouth.
The “ibérico bellota” hams are the ultimate expression, from 100% ibérico breed pigs that feed exclusively on acorns and grass during the montanera phase. They are identified with a red label. The label is green if the pig is 75% ibérico breed. In both cases they must spend at least 60 days on the dehesa.
“Cebo or Cebo de Campo” ham comes from pigs fed on feed, primarily made up of cereals, legumes and the natural grasses of their diet, completed with a minimum free-range period of 90 days. They are identified with a green-coloured label.
Nevertheless, these animals don’t just produce ham. Every part of an Extremeñan pig is utilised, from nose to tail. Try the ibérico pancetta, streaky lardo, blood sausage, patatera and lustre sausages and dried sausages like salchichón, lomo and morcones, made with minced ibérico pork and marinaded with spices, especially La Vera paprika, another of the region's fine products.
A Journey across the Region
The dehesas extend across practically all the region and you can savour and appreciate ibérico products at any village in the region. The Dehesa de Extremadura Protected Designation of Origin indication is held by companies across Extremadura. The provinces of Cáceres and Badajoz are perhaps the best-known area for these products.
Tentudía and Sierra Suroeste are home to great expanses of dehesa in the south of Badajoz, as well as the environments of the Campiña Sur. In Cáceres, one of the territories with the most tradition and ham heritage is the county of the Sierra de Montánchez-Tamuja, followed by other like the Sierra de San Pedro-Los Baldíos and Las Villuercas, in the centre of the province. And in the north, the Ambroz valley and Tierras de Granadilla.
Your journey there will take you along the A66 motorway which runs through Extremadura from north to south.
Make a stop in the areas at the Monastery of Higuera la Real to visit the Museum of Ham and the Ibérico Pig Interpretation Centre. Here you can learn all about the culture of ibérico products and the dehesa. Find out about its history, the products, the intricacies of the production process of ibérico ham and roots of the family tradition of the matanza or slaughter.
Festivals and traditions
Ibérico products and specifically the hams are firmly rooted in our traditions and are at the heart of many of the festivals and events held throughout the year. Some of these have been declared Festivals of Tourist Interest of Extremadura such as the Día del Jamón in Monesterio, the Pedida de la Patatera in Malpartida de Cáceres and the traditional Extremeñan Matanza festival in Llerena.
The Día del Jamón or Ham Day in Monasterio in the first week in September usually coincides with Extremadura’s regional holiday on 8 September. Tastings of ham and other ibérico products such as shoulder and loin are the main order of business here but there are other events happening too, like festive educational activities, sports tournaments, courses and concerts, the most popular being the national ham carving contest.
On Carnival Tuesday, the Pedida de la Patatera takes place in Malpartida de Cáceres, close to Cáceres. The centre of attention here is the traditional Extremeñan sausage prepared with potato, animal fat, pork and paprika. Its origins date back to the late 19th century when young people, especially the quintos (young men due for military service) would visit the houses asking for some patatera sausage and other foods to enjoy them later in the taverns of the village. It is a festival that celebrates this delicious product.
One of the most important rituals in Extremeñan gastronomic culture is the traditional matanza festival held in Llerena in early March and recreating and paying homage to the traditional pig slaughter. The festival goers enjoy ibérico products and there is also an educational element: the entire ibérico pig cutting process is explained in detail in the local square.
Other notable events include the Salón del Jamón Ibérico in Jerez de los Caballeros (May), the Feria de la Montanera in Fuentes de León (October) or the national ham Carving competition in Fuente de Cantos (May).
Come to Extremadura. The world of ibérico awaits.