Where to stay
Prices quoted are for a double room, based on two people sharing, with breakfast (unless otherwise stated).
Hotel Hospedería Real Monasterio Guadalupe You don’t have to be a religious pilgrim to stay in this unique historic monument where the monks attached to the Real Monasterio de Guadalupe have lived for centuries. The former monk cells are basic and comfortable. Rooms from £58. Plaza de Su Majestad, Guadalupe, 00 34 927 367 000, http://hotelhospederiamonaster...
Parador de Guadalupe Located in a former ecclesiastical college inaugurated in 1516 and with a beautiful Mudejár cloister lined with orange trees, this hotel has rooms that are well appointed and the restaurant serves traditional foods including a fantastic breakfast buffet. Rooms from £99. Marqués de la Romana 12, Guadalupe, 00 34 927 367 075, http://parador.es
Atrio Restaurant Hotel A Relais & Châteaux property in a restored 16th-century house that marries historic architecture with ultra-contemporary style. Make sure you dine at Atrio, one of the best restaurants in Spain (see Where To Eat). Rooms from £224. Plaza de San Mateo 1, Cáceres, 00 34 927 242 928, http://relaischateaux.com
NH Palacio de Oquendo Just outside Cáceres’ casco antiguo, this 16th-century stone palace has been carefully restored and makes a comfortable base. It has a tapas restaurant and bar. Rooms from £74. Plaza San Juan 11, Cáceres, 00 34 927 215 800, http://nh-hotels.com
Hotel Adealba This small, modern hotel in the centre of Mérida is well situated for visiting the Roman sites and exploring the old town. It also has spa facilities. Rooms from £83. Romero Leal 18, Mérida, 00 34 924 388 308, http://hoteladealba.com
Currency is the euro (£1=£1.20 EUR). Extremadura is one hour ahead of GMT. In general, the climate is very dry. Summer in Extremadura can get brutally hot, particularly in the south. Spring and autumn are usually the best times to visit, with cooler temperatures and less crowds. The heaviest rain tends to fall mostly from late October to November.
Air Europa (http://aireuropa.com) offers flights from London Gatwick to Madrid, with onward connections available to Cáceres. Cáceres also boasts good rail connections, with five trains arriving per day from Madrid (the journey takes about four to five hours). Alternatively, connecting domestic flights and trains are also available from Seville, another neighbouring international airport.
Extremadura Tourism (http://turismoextremadura.com) has detailed information on activities and attractions in this little-known region.
Spanish Tourist Office (http://spain.info) has a good overview of the different regions of Spain, including information on gourmet destinations.
Pizarro: Seasonal Spanish Food by José Pizzaro (Kyle Books, £15.99). In his first book, the London chef, who grew up on a farm in Extremadura, shares his passion for fresh, seasonal ingredients and shares some personal anecdotes and memories along the way.
Where to eat
Prices quoted are per person for three courses (without wine).
Hotel Hospedería Real Monasterio Guadalupe Monastic cuisine as it has been for centuries, with recipes handed down through the ages (see Where to Stay). From £20. Plaza de Su Majestad, Guadalupe, 00 34 927 367 000, http://hotelhospederiamonaster...
Restaurante Abadia de Yuste A lovely rural hotel complex near the Yuste monastery where Emperor Charles V came to retire and die after abdicating his throne. The restaurant serves traditional fare including migas Extremeñas and Iberian meats cooked a la plancha. From £25. Avenida de la Constitución 73, Cuacos de Yuste, Cáceres, 00 34 927 172 241, http://abadiadeyuste.com
Atrio Restaurant Hotel History, tradition, modern architecture and creative genius all come together in this remarkable and unique restaurant. Toño Pérez is rooted in Extremaduran tradition and utilises its best produce and ingredients to create an original and elegant cuisine that is wholly his own. The wine cellar is considered one of the very best in the world (see Where to Stay). From £100. Plaza de San Mateo 1, Cáceres, 00 34 927 242 928, http://relaischateaux.com
El Figón de Eustaquio This city centre family eating house has been serving the classical and traditional foods of the region since 1947. It’s the sort of place where people come first as children with their parents and grandparents and then continue to come with their own children. Typical dishes include migas, roast lamb or kid, or game in season. From £25. Plaza San Juan, 12-14, Cáceres, 00 34 927 244 362, http://elfigondeeustaquio.com
La Dehesa del Castúo This is where the people of Mérida come to enjoy themselves over meals of simple inexpensive tapas and Iberian meats grilled over charcoal, all washed down with local wines or beer. From £12. C/Cabo Verde, Mérida, 00 34 924 388 225
Restaurante Cachicho Gonzalo Valverde, Cachicho’s award-winning head chef, creates traditional Extremaduran dishes with a modern touch. Tataki de lomo Ibérico, for example, is a Japanese inspired soy-cured loin of Iberian pork cut into thin slices like sashimi. There are some dishes of a more classic persuasion, which will appeal to more traditional diners, such as the old-favourite dessert leche frita con helado de naranja – fried milk with orange ice-cream. From £33. Avenida Libertad 51, Mérida, 00 34 924 372 847
Food and Travel Review
The Real Monasterio de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe lies in a remote fold of the Sierra de Altamira in Spain’s far-off Extremadura, an autonomous, landlocked region on the border with Portugal. This remarkable historical monument dates from the 14th century and is connected with two hugely significant events in Spanish history: the expulsion of the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula, and the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus. For centuries, a statue of the Black Virgin has been at the centre of one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Christendom. Even today, it continues to attract the faithful – not just from throughout Spain but around the world, most notably from Central and South America where the image of the Our Lady of Guadalupe came to symbolise Christianity in the New World.
Pilgrims, of course, need places to eat and sleep, and there is no shortage of accommodation in town. The monastery itself has its own hospedería (lodging house) where pilgrims and guests, as they have done for centuries, can sleep in former monk cells. Indeed, the Catholic monarchs King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile were once guests on their numerous visits to Guadalupe.To stay or dine here is to connect directly with the history of Spain.
I am sitting outdoors under the Gothic cloisters of the monastery on a warm evening. The bells from the abbey peel, sonorous yet muffled; otherwise all is peaceful and quiet. This hallowed place was once home to more than 100 Hieronymite monks; today only a handful of Franciscans remain. Yet the traditions of the monastery continue intact. Miguel Torrejon, the head chef, tells me that he has been cooking at the monastery for some 30 years. ‘Our cocina monacal (monastic cuisine) is very simple,’ he says. ‘We use produce that we grow ourselves in the huerta (kitchen garden) as well as local ingredients, prepared faithfully to traditional recipes that have not changed for centuries.’
His menu features dishes that have been enjoyed by pilgrims and kings alike: morcilla de Guadalupe (the local black pudding); sopa de tomate (tomato soup served with fresh figs and grapes); zarangollo Extremeño (roasted red peppers sautéed in garlic and olive oil); carrilleras de Ibérico sobre lecho de setas (braised Iberian pork cheeks served over stewed wild mushrooms); and caldereta de cabrito (kid slow cooked in onions, garlic and pimentón de la Vera – the smoked paprika that is so characteristic of this region).
This is rustic country food that satisfies the appetites of those who may have travelled hundred of miles or across oceans to get to Guadalupe. Columbus himself apparently sought the divine guidance of the Virgin here, and so did Ferdinand and Isabella, before they gave him permission to embark on his first voyage of discovery. On his return, Columbus brought back with him indigenous people from the Americas, who were subsequently baptised in the town’s fountain. He also carried back new food ingredients that would change the diet, not just of Spain, but the world.
The first peppers, tomatoes and potatoes brought back from the New World were actually cultivated in the monastery’s huerta. These foods, once exotic but now ubiquitous, colour and spice a regional cuisine that ranges from the simple and the rustic to some of the most sophisticated and delicious in Spain.
Links with Guadalupe’s past are never far away. For example, it is highly probable that those Hieronymite monks, being talented horticulturalists, discovered a unique method of preserving peppers to use all-year round. Today the fertile valley that extends around Jaraíz de la Vera remains a centre for their cultivation and processing. Once harvested, the different varieties of capsicum annuum are taken to small smokehouse sheds set up in the fields where they are placed on latticed attic floors and slowly dried over fires of smouldering holm oak. Afterwards, the dried peppers are carefully ground by stone mills into a fine, deep red powder with a distinctive smoky flavour that is such a distinguishing feature of Spanish cuisine. This is pimentón de la Vera. It comes available in three levels of heat: dulce (mild), agridulce (slightly hot), and picante (hot).
Pimentón de la Vera is a key ingredient in regional dishes such as migas Extremeñas. The humble shepherd’s dish is still much loved throughout the region, although it may sound unpromising, consisting of little more than stale breadcrumbs, bacon, chorizo and peppers, fried with garlic in olive oil and coloured and flavoured with that ever-present pimentón. I enjoy this simple dish at the Hotel Abadía de Yuste. It is absolutely delicious. I ask Maria Hernandez when is the best time to eat it? ‘Any time!’ she exclaims. ‘For breakfast, or else mid-morning if you return home hungry, or in the evening for a supper, topped with a fried egg.’
Extremadura remains a land of herdsmen. The dehesa is a vast expanse of scrubby, semi-cleared forests of holm oak, cork oak, pine and beech. This wild, often communal pastureland provides the ideal grazing conditions for sheep and goats, both of which provide milk for a range of outstanding regional cheeses. Torta del Casar is perhaps the most interesting. This cheese, protected by its Denominación de Origen (DO) status, is one of the most expensive in Spain, yet comes from the simple tradition of making homemade cheeses by hand, coagulating the sheep’s milk with wild thistle. The natural rennet kept the cheeses from setting too hard, and some cheeses mysteriously remained beautifully runny and creamy. Today, in modern dairies, the cheeses are still made following age-old precepts but under carefully controlled conditions to create consistently strong-flavoured runny cheeses, that are so soft they can be eaten with a spoon. Thus a simple shepherd’s tradition has resulted in one of the great and unique cheeses of the world.
Extremadura’s dehesa is also the habitat for the cerdo Ibérico, the Iberian pig, a native breed that is semi-domesticated and related to the wild boar. These rather small pigs have an insatiable appetite for bellotas (acorns). When left to roam completely free, from September to February, they will consume as much as 10kg of acorns a day and gain a massive 70 to 80kg in weight. Yet because they have to roam far and wide to find sufficient quantities of acorns, the fat they accumulate disperses in fine streaks throughout their muscles, resulting in a meat with incredible melting sweetness.
We drive out into the dehesa with Manuel Maldonado, who produces some of the world’s finest cured meat products and is also a supplier to José Pizarro, the chef/owner of José and Pizarro, his eponymous tapas bar and restaurant respectively, in London. We continue off-road deep into a countryside that shows little sign of civilisation and pull up near a watering hole where Alejandro, a young porquero (swineherd), calls out for his curly tailed charges. Before long, about 200 small grey pigs come galloping towards us from all directions. ‘This habitat is perfect for the cerdo Ibérico. I believe that the dehesa is one of the most important things that a man can possess. It is our patrimony,’ states Manuel.
Meat from the cerdo Ibérico is eaten fresh, simply cooked a la plancha (on the griddle) and enjoyed rare, like steak. It also features in a range of Spanish embutidos (cured pork products) such as chorizo (tinted with pimentón de la Vera), morcón (a larger chorizo-type sausage), lomo (cured loin), salchichón (a sausagelike salami that is made, oddly enough, without any pimentón), morcilla (black pudding), pancetta (cured belly) and papadas (cured strips of fat taken from the pig’s throat).
After the expulsion of the Moors and the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, the eating of pork became something of a show of faith: it was proof that one was a Christian. If today Spaniards still worship the cult of the pig, then jamón Ibérico puro de bellota DO Dehesa de Extremadura has represent the peak of cured pork perfection. The key words here are ‘Ibérico puro’ (the majority of producers use cross-breeds rather than pure) and ‘bellota’, for the more acorns that the pigs eat, the finer – and the more expensive – the ham. To create this speciality, the hind legs of select Iberian pigs are simply dry salted, then hung up to age in airy ham lofts for upwards of three or four years. The meat slowly cures to a deep, dark colour while the streaks of fat mellow to a sweet creaminess.
The seemingly harsh and rugged landscape of Extremadura yields a generous bounty, for those who know what they are looking for. Wild mushrooms are plentiful in the woods, while trigueros (wild asparagus) can often be gathered by the roadside. Criadillas de tierra are a type of truffle with a distinctive earthy flavour found only in Extremadura. These wild foods, gathered for free by canny country folk, are utilised by the region’s finest chefs in a cuisine that is at once rooted in tradition as it is innovative and imaginative.
At the Figón de Eustaquio, a family eating house in medieval Cáceres, you’ll find the signature dish of salteado especial de verduras con torta del Casar (wild vegetables, including cèpe mushrooms, criadillas de tierra and trigueros sautéed in local olive oil and topped with a melting, creamy torta del Casar). At Restaurante Cachicho, in Mérida, chef Gonzalo Valverde prepares a stupendous dish of wild partridge braised in port wine.
Meanwhile, at Atrio, probably Extremadura’s finest restaurant, chef Toño Pérez utilises any number of wild ingredients on his incredibly refined menu. The light and elegant lasaña de criadillas de tierra is a particular favourite; the intense and deep flavours of the earth truffle are brought out by a rich oloroso sherry sauce. Pérez’s restaurant is situated within a restored 16th-century house, now a luxury hotel nestled within Cáceres’ charming medieval quarter. A forbidding stone exterior opens to reveal a light and soothing interior decorated in ultra-contemporary style. It’s an architectural marvel that fuses the building’s rich past with a modern sensibility.
From the outside, Extremadura may appear closed, landlocked and remote, but it has long inspired a forward-looking mentality among its people. Indeed, monuments from past ages indicate it is a region of immense self-confidence that knows its own worth. Mérida, the Roman city of Emerita Augusta, was the capital of the province of Lusitania, and one of the most important cities in the Roman Empire. Its surviving and very impressive Roman bridge – the longest still in existence – and monuments including an aqueduct, triumphal arch, amphitheatre and theatre point to a city of great sophistication. Cáceres, a World Heritage City, has one of the best preserved medieval quarters in Europe. Most of the palaces were built with riches brought from the New World, for many of the conquistadors (the soldiers and explorers known as ‘conquerors’) originally came from Extremadura.
Extremadura is a land of many layers and complexities, the past is spoken of as it were only yesterday. At Guadalupe, it seems almost as if the Hieronymite monks never left, as if the place is hardly changed since the days when they welcomed Columbus, Ferdinand and Isabella. I gaze across the vast expanses of dehesa where Iberian pigs, goats and sheep graze in the shade of oak trees and are tended by shepherds in a timeless landscape. I drink deeply of the rustic pitarra wine, fermented – as in the old days – in earthenware vessels, nibble on a tapa, and savour and enjoy the flavours of this region’s rich and complex history.
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