We had one more day of pig ahead of us, but we had to get up and out early to do it. We left Sanlucar after breakfast driving east into a bright sun. We made our way up past Sevilla, then through Córdoba and into the hills and dehesa of Los Pedroches, a D.O. in northern Andalucia. It is a small D.O., but there is a lot of land devoted to the dehesa and a high concentration of pure Iberian pigs.
Our first stop was at COVAP, a large co-operative producer of Iberian products and the only one on our itinerary that was approved for US imports. We met a number of high ranking officials, both from the company and from the D.O. for a tour of the plant. This was a totally different picture than the others, It was shiny and as clean as an operating room. In some parts, such as the slicing room, it was even cleaner, with procedures straight out of a science fiction disaster movie. It was an efficient operation that combined an artisanal product with industrial technique. The co-op only started producing hams at this facility in 2004 with their first product coming to market three years later.
From there, we drove out to the dehesa. On the way we saw large groups of pigs eating bellotas under the oaks. Unlike the oaks in Extremadura, these were not cork trees. They were a variety that produced very sweet acorns and apparently this season, which runs from November until the end of January, had been a particularly good one. Each pig on the dehesa would end up eating at least a ton of them during their montanera.
We pulled into a road and got out to find a large group of at least forty pigs lolling around eating to their hearts content. They were skittish though and began to move away as we approached. One of the officials, however, out flanked them and turned them around to come back towards and then past us. At one point they even broke into a porcine stampede right around me. It was a sight and feeling that reminded me of an African safari with the pigs resembling small hippos.
After we had our visual fill of the living hams, we went to the nearby town of Villareal de Cordoba. The officials had invited us to lunch at a restaurant called “La Puerta Falsa.” It was a nicely appointed restaurant that served excellent regional specialties including two kinds of Salmorejo, fantastic baby artichokes with Iberian ham and the best grilled fresh Iberian cuts that we had had on the journey. It was a great and fitting end to our journey through the land of the Iberian pig.
Unfortunately, we finished two hours later than planned and so we continued our journey north towards Madrid with darkness descending before we got far enough into the area of La Mancha to see the windmills of Don Quijote and other sights. We made it in time to our overnight destination of Chinchon to check into our hotel and head down to the well preserved and atmospheric old Spanish Plaza Mayor of this small hillside city about an hour south of Madrid. The plaza was sloped like that in Siena and also like the Siena plaza, served double duty. In Siena, the Piazza Popolo serves as a horse racing course during the famous Palio races in July and August. In Chinchon, the plaza doubles as a bull ring. The buildings circling the plaza are lined with layers of balconies to overlook the action. Above and behind the plaza, one can see some architectural oddities of history as there is a church without a tour and nearby a tower without a church. When the church was built, they had run out of money before a proper tower could be built. The nearby tower had belonged to a church that had been burned down, but never replaced.
We headed to a corner of the plaza to the restaurant La Balconada, where we enjoyed some of the finest traditional Spanish cooking of the trip. Huevos rotos, were superb with a hint of vinegar to jazz them up. Revueltos or eggs had been scrambled in another dish with green garlic and gambas – it was totally delicious! Artichokes had been stuffed with jamon bits and served with a lemony sauce – very refined. Lamb sweetbreads and been cut up and sautéed with fresh favas and ham bits for a very Spanish treat. Our last course was our first beef of the trip. Slices from the rib section of an ox wee brought out along with an incredibly hot stone. We cooked our slices directly on the sizzling stone. With a touch of sea salt, it was pure hedonism. We finished with tastes of their fried milk and rice with milk desserts.