A Quest in Pursuit of Porkfection
Taking the madly quixotic Don Quixote as his model, Des goes in search of porky perfection in Extremadura, Spain.
A version of this article first appeared in “Viva Espana” magazine in 2004. Dates and information in it relate to that time.
Where have all the pigs gone? If there is one thing that the rest of Spain (and some of the rest of the world) knows for certain, it is that Extremadura is where jamon hails from. And that implies piggery on a significant scale.
Victorian travellers to this remote part of Spain reported that it was almost impossible to see the woods for the pigs, so plentiful were the herds of swine beneath the oaks. Richard Ford, author of Murray’s first “Handbook for Spain”, described how at sundown every day he and his riding companions were almost swept away in a porcine rush hour. All the pigs in the woods returned home simultaneously of their own volition, thundering down the village streets and turning into their sties. These were inside the hardly less sty-like hovels of their owners. Ford described the Extremaduran peasant as the peer of his bristly charges, although less valuable when dead.
Extremadura has changed a lot in the intervening 170 years, but it still remains one of Spain’s least visited and most unspoiled provinces. Sadly, the region’s black Iberian porker, a pig as dusky and as beautiful as Pigling Bland’s girlfriend, is now harder to see, except in its finished, packaged form, which is plentiful and excellent.
Nevertheless, this summer I decided, like Don Quijote, to embark on a quest, not courtly like his, but, like his, decidedly Romantic and not a little daft, to find and see the Iberian pig in its spritely and living form.
Arriving at Madrid, first stop was the Flemish room in the Prado, where Philip II’s outstanding collection of Hieronymus Bosch and Brueghel paintings hang. The room is full of bizarre and surreal paintings of the Temptation of Saint Anthony of Egypt, the patron saint of pigs. Surely a few words in his ear, in this, his secular shrine, would help? And if by a quixotic sleight of mind I melded his powers with those of his namesake, Saint Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost things, then my lost cause, lost pigs, must surely turn out well.
Next stop: a quick visit to Philip’s gaunt Escorial palace in the foothills outside Madrid, to see more copies of El Bosco (as Bosch is known in Spain). Also to contemplate the room where Philip died, one of his eyes on the countryside, another on the high altar of the chapel, and another (too many by now, surely) on Bosch’s painting of the Seven Deadly Sins (now in the Prado). The recollection of its mortal warning against Gluttony might help stave off excesses of charcuterie en route.
The final propitiation I made on the road to the west was to the ruling saint of Extremadura herself, the black-faced Virgin of Guadalupe, at her great mountain sanctuary. Not a Catholic, I held back with other embarrassed and uncomfortable Northern European tourists, while long files of Spanish pilgrims queued to kiss the hem of her cope. Surely she would be catholic enough, nevertheless, to smile upon the unhinged endeavours of an Anglo-Saxon infidel?
Coming in from the east and north, after much luckless scouring and scouting, I asked an Extremaduran if he knew why I had failed to see any pigs. I was looking in the wrong place, he said. He assured me I would find them in the mountainous areas way down south, or in the centre, around Montanchez. There, he said, I would surely see them, as they are still reared in the old way, out in the open. In other words, in hog heaven.
This is what I had heard about. They are apparently truly free range creatures, effortlessly snarfing acorns in vast flower meadows dotted with oaks, which they share with their friends the cows and horses, the sheep and goats. A happy pig makes a happy ham it seems.
Their come-uppance, when it comes, still arrives in typically peasant form in the depths of winter, in a ritual called “la matanza”. In a family get-together reminiscent of only Christmas in the UK, up to four generations of womenfolk gather to process the freshly killed pigs into every imaginable kind of sausage, ham, and edible (and that’s almost every) body part.
If you are privileged enough to be invited to attend a matanza, be warned that you will need a strong stomach. You will witness Bosch-like scenes of slicing and dicing, followed by bubbling, boiling and burning, set amid ancient machineries, and surrounded by bowls, basins and troughs full of every conceivable innard and part of a pig. Afterwards you will be invited to taste the mature products of last year’s matanza, and to compare it with this year’s, if, by this stage, you can still entertain the thought of eating pork.
I am told (since, as a man, I will never witness it) that the air often becomes blue with ribald remarks and the cackle of lewd laughter, as the women pump the hand-driven mincer and watch the sausage skins swell with red meat.
But I digress. The man’s news was good news, as I had heard of Montanchez, which, if Ford is to be believed, is apparently the Holy of Holy of hams. If seeing pigs in the meadows did not work out, I could at least sample the exquisite meats of this mountain town. They are supposed to bear no relation to the sour, rubbery chorizos and jamons you often get in the UK. Even the lowliest bar in the plaza of Montanchez will serve you portions of chorizo and jamon that will make you realize that you have never before really tasted either. They have a succulent melt-in-the-mouth delicacy of texture, and a subtle complexity of flavour, which is indescribable, an experience reminiscent of the best foie gras.
In Montanchez I learned some of the reasons why Iberian pigs are scarcer these days. Apparently some 70 million oak trees were ripped out during the 1960s and 70s, following mass rural emigration and a devastating outbreak of swine fever. There was also a plan by the province of Badajoz to replace much of the oak meadows with arable land irrigated by the Guadiana river.
I asked a man whose family raises pigs locally why I still had not seen any, even around Montanchez. His answer felled the crest of this latter-day Pig Finder General. The pigs were all back home on their farms, he said, and only came out for a few months each year. Doh! I had forgotten that acorns, like other fruits, ripen in the autumn, and there are none to be had in the summer. As Sancho Panza, that great proverbialist, would have said, if only he had thought of it: “The acorn in Spain falls mainly as the year wanes.”
Disappointed, but gambling all on a last Hail Mary play, I headed towards the extreme south-west of Extremadura, where there is the greatest concentration of remaining oak meadows. No luck. On my last day, however, disconsolate and heading back north again towards the airport, all my propitiation of the holy powers paid off. There, near Jerez de los Caballeros, I found a herd of Iberian pigs snuffling beneath oaks in the parched summer soil. Coming towards me from all quarters, they began a percussive chorus of snorts and grunts in fellow greeting. My kinda guys! I felt it had all been worthwhile. A happy (and, dare I say, a curly) ending.
For lovers of jamon, however, perhaps it is just as well that you do not see too many friendly Iberian porkers, or witness a matanza, on your way to Montanchez, that place of epicurean pilgrimage. As with foie gras, some delicacies are best enjoyed without thinking too much about their production. The truth is just too close to the bone.
Montanchez is a 14 kilometre excursion to the east of the Via de la Plata (N630), roughly half way between Merida (king of Spanish Roman towns) and Caceres (queen of Renaissance conquistador towns, although I prefer the bijou and nearby Trujillo).
Apart from consuming or buying charcuterie and wines, visit the castle and its beautiful chapel (free). Here you will discover why Montanchez is called “el Balcon de Extremadura”. The views are huge. You feel you might be able to see for 100 leagues, if you could only work out what a league was.
Fans of untouristy, “real” towns will enjoy strolling through the streets and visiting the church. Walkers will enjoy the various short and long planned hikes around the area and the neighbouring Mt. Montanchez. Pig fans (in season!) will enjoy descending from the mountain and patrolling the dehesas below.
For further information about jamon and chorizo, see my post “Jamon, Jamon”.