Mushrooms and ham are the delights of Spain’s southwest region
By SYLVIE BIGAR | SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON POST Published: May 24, 2017
Finally, the chef smiled. Huddled under a sunlit chestnut tree, he pointed to dry leaves, opened his pocketknife and in a quick motion dug out the hidden orange mushroom I had missed. An hour later, he had filled our basket with porcini, Amanita caesarea and chanterelles.
Earlier last year, as I enjoyed roasted mushrooms at a tapas bar in New York, a Spanish friend reminisced about picking some with his grandfather near Aracena, a town in southwestern Spain. Nestled in the province of Huelva, the area teemed with mushrooms, oak trees and black pigs, he said. I had never heard of Aracena, but I had savored Jamon Iberico, the luscious cured ham made from those pigs, and I knew I wanted more. That was enough to set me on a three-day journey to discover this unsung corner of Spain.
I landed in Seville and drove 90 minutes to Aracena, within what was now a national park named Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche.
Research had shown that chef Manolo Fernandez Ribero and his wife, Susi, who own Cafe Bar Manzano on the main square, offered a whole mushroom menu. They had agreed to take me foraging.
Later that night, as I devoured our harvest — grilled, stuffed, baked and fried — I noticed that most ingredients on the regular menu also came from the surrounding land: Aracena cheese from the meadows, chestnuts from the sierra. And Jamon, of course.
“Iberico pigs spend the last months of their lives nearby, gorging on acorns,” Ribero said.
We drove through rolling hills covered with Mediterranean forest redolent of rosemary and thyme. Surrounded by pastures dotted with oak trees and framed by low stone walls, this was the dehesa, an ancient, man-made terrain where most vegetation is cleared except the oak trees and the grasses on which the pigs graze.
It was my first encounter with the Iberico pigs, the descendant of the Mediterranean wild hog. I got out, a bit uneasy. (Would they charge at me?) The hogs gathered around me, sniffing my jeans with their long snouts. One lay down at my feet and I knelt to pet his rugged skin. I was silent, later, on my way to meet Valeriano Ramos, the maestro Jamonero at Cinco Jotas, one of the leading producers of Jamon Iberico de Bellota. How does one reconcile being an animal lover and a carnivore?
Historians claim that Iberian gourmands have enjoyed cured ham — a pig’s haunch or shoulder rolled in salt and hung in cellars or caves for 18 to 36 months — since prehistoric times. But there are many types of ham. Jamon Serrano (about 90 percent of the total ham production) comes from white pigs that are fed mostly cereal. Jamon Iberico comes from black or dark-gray pigs, the Iberico breed, but only free-range pigs that feed on acorns (“bellota”) and grasses for the last few months of their lives produce the prized Jamon Iberico de Bellota. In fact, less than 1 percent of all Spanish ham comes from acorn-fed Iberico animals. The most rare and expensive, the best, I was told.
That’s the one I wanted.
At Bodega Cinco Jotas in the town of Jabugo, I inhaled a nutty, earthy smell as I walked the above-ground “cellars” expecting machines, air purifiers or perhaps humidifiers. But all I saw were successions of red brick arcades holding an infinite number of hanging hams. Here and there, cracked windows let the crisp air swirl in silence.
“The secret is in the cave,” said Ramos. “We have hams from 2012 to 2016 and most are sold or reserved.”
Ramos, who learned his craft from his father, has worked there for 27 years, and his crew turns the hams regularly to ensure that the breeze hits the meat consistently.
Because the ones closer to the windows are exposed to higher and lower temperatures, as well as different air quality, the hams are rotated. More importantly, they are examined by experts, who determine how each ham is progressing. They can turn them or move them to ensure that all the hams are equally cured and will be of the same quality and taste.
It was time. I sat at a counter in the Cinco Jotas shop, facing a whole pig leg mounted on a metal support. The knife strode along the red meat, carving petals as thin as silk. I slid one in my mouth. Immediately, fat coated my tongue — nutty, woodsy and salty tastes came next. Tender, but just chewy enough for my jaw to need to move slowly. As soon as I could, I reached for another slice.
The next day, I descended into a real cave, the Grutas de la Maravillas that lies under the hill at the center of Aracena. I was plunged into a world of living rocks, simmering waters and growing crystals. Open to the public since 1914, the cave consists of three levels and a 3,300-foot-long path. But when the guide pointed to long, lacy formations hanging from the ceilings, I saw only ribbons of Jamon. I couldn’t wait for my next stop, a tiny village called Linares de la Sierra, where a simple restaurant named Arrieros had made it into the “Bib Gourmant” Michelin Guide — good tables at reasonable prices.
Another quick drive and I arrived too early for dinner, so I walked into the hammam, or Turkish bath, a surprising sight in this ancient Moorish village of 300 residents. As it turned out, it was the perfect way to daydream until mealtime in the able hands of co-owner and massage therapist Marie-Jo Nieto.
Night descended, bringing a light-blue glow onto the white buildings as I walked the few steps to Arrieros, the haunt of chef Luismi Lopez.
“I cook the cuisine of the dehesa,” said the shaggy-haired and bearded Lopez as he peeled the outer layer of a mushroom the size of my palm.
As I sat in this ancient shed, with its stone floor and whitewashed walls, the chef made a “simple soup” from the pumpkin he had picked from his garden. I felt as if I were drinking the essence of the plant, intense but sweet, with hints of hazelnuts.
Lopez celebrates the Iberico but goes way beyond Jamon. A cut of presa, a shoulder steak, cooked medium-rare, was tender and woodsy while a hamburger made with ground pluma, the end of the loin, was juicy and delicately fatty. Local, tangy Aracena cheese, melted on a toasted slice of crusty bread, transported me back to the meadows.
Later that night, as I walked the silent cobblestone streets of Aracena, I looked up to the most vivid night sky I had ever seen. Deemed a star-gazing destination by the Starlight Foundation, this area kept revealing more secrets. It was just a matter of digging for them.
Mushrooms and ham are the delights of Spain’s southwest region