Remote, bucolic and historically-rich: Extremadura is a laidback, sun-drenched pocket of ancient Spain.
Story and Photos by Jeff Fuchs
“Friends and comrades! On that side [south] are toil, hunger, nakedness, the drenching storm, desertion, and death; on this side, ease and pleasure. There lies Peru with its riches; here, Panama and its poverty. Choose, each man, what best becomes a brave Castilian. For my part, I go to the south.”
These words, from one of the most brutally efficient of all the Spanish conquistadores, hints not simply of a national ambition or policy of the time. It speaks to a kind of man who craved personal risk and who feared little.
While Francisco Pizzaro’s exploits (circa 1525-1540) would firmly establish Spain’s long-lasting claim over South America, he would die in ignominy in Peru, when assassinated after much skullduggery. Pizarro’s “feats” of conquering and destruction, and his death, point to an era in history when an expansionist empire enlisted a generation of rugged and desperate mortals from a land that held little in the way of promise. A place of desolation, extreme seasonal variation, and the ensuing limited agricultural opportunities; a place that struggled to keep any who craved an elsewhere.
In Spain, still today, the region of Extremadura (meaning “extreme hardship” in English) is often referred to as La Gran Desconocida, or the Big Unknown. The impoverished inland region in southwestern Spain tempted and pushed many of its starved sons to leave and seek life—any life—elsewhere. According to many Spaniards, it does still.
Other conquistadores, like Hernando de Soto and Vasco Nunez de Balboa, actually claimed Extremadura as their homeland. And while they brought home massive wealth all those centuries ago, the region remains one of the poorest and least known zones of not simply Spain but Europe.
It is a Friday, and I stand munching a savory cheese in a market of unpasteurized dairy delights.
The brutal and famed sun of Extremadura bludgeons, and around me pungent offerings of truffle cheese, reckless examples of local pepper cheese, and buttery sheep milk triangles of cheese, dot an entire square of Pizarro’s hometown of Trujillo.
Above us, a tribute statue of Pizarro astride his mount looms, casting shade pockets to escape the heat. Even now, with the sun, things casually bustle; but just a short walk to the outskirts of the village and there’s an expanse of gorgeous nothingness. I’m reminded of what a Tibetan friend once said to me about spaces: “In the mountains there is always life, but it isn’t always seen. It hides in valleys and tents, but it is always there.”
Perhaps in this big empty space life is here as well, but it certainly isn’t seen. It is through this space that I’ll walk, drive, and eat my way through in the coming weeks.
To the south of Extremadura are the elegant and grand towns of festivals and culture, Seville and Cordoba. To its north, the third-oldest university in all of Europe, the University of Salamanca, founded in 1134, sits in sweeping lines across the far landscape. But Extremadura remains a wonderful little gap of quiet solitude, under-populated stillness.
Names of its towns barely register, even with native Spaniards. A southwestern zone that sits as a kind of void abutting Portugal that is known for its coveted jamón Ibérico de bellota (a cured ham made from acorn-fed Iberian pigs), stunning little cheeses and clean water.
Friend and Spanish author Javier Moro explained it best when describing the area: “It is magnificent, and unknown.”
That was enough to entice me, along with the promised cheese. Locals seem far more interested in explaining their cheeses than in discussing anything remotely Pizarro, or conquistador-like. In fact, they have a sort of candid pride in their isolation.
“Here we have clean water, great food…cheese, and ourselves,” says a cheese vendor with a little laugh, as though with these ingredients alone there is enough. The history may cling, but the feeling here is very much of the present, and there is some great wisdom in that.
I’m often suspicious, or perhaps more intrigued, when a place has a reputation for being isolated, backwards or unknown, because it is in these so-called settings that I’ve often found the most wonderful of authentic lives being lived.
A slow plodding journey through Extremadura has taken me to Trujillo, then west, and now north again. Unmolested lands lie tucked into themselves and there isn’t any kind of off-the-grid here because everything is off-the-grid.
Ultimately my loose goal is to reach a swath of Extremadura’s northern borderland at the Sierra de Gata (roughly translating to “Mountains of the Female Cat”). Gata’s mountains draw me—as mountains always do—and there is much to experience. One such distraction is the tiny community of Segura de Toro.
Settled around an ancient Celtic stone statue, and a local woman who makes cheese in her cellar, the village barely stirs. It is a community that does not come out to welcome outsiders but rather waits for the outsider to stay awhile. Shepherd trails and migration paths—yet another of those ancient trade and nomadic routes that have always fascinated me—meander up over round hills, weaving into the rock-strewn fields.
I haven’t quite made it to Gata yet, having been drawn off course by that sumptuous luxury called time, and its friend curiosity. My hostess, Begonia, is testament to the ethnic layers of the land, speaking the little-known language of this region, Fala, that is part Portuguese and part Galician (which was and is still very much influenced by Celtic legacy). Passion from this champion of all things local is a barely restrained force, and her desire to explain the deep historical residue and history of the region is a thing of beauty.
“This region has hosted the Moors, the Celts, the Visigoths, the Jews, and others,” she tells me. “It has been a place to hide and to thrive. We can keep culture alive because we have been isolated.”
Begonia’s tutoring doesn’t end there.
“Tomorrow you will visit my sister’s home for her homemade cheeses.”
Regardless of the gravitas of a conversation, the subject of food and imbibing of delightful liquids are things that seem everywhere in this region. And so it comes to pass that once again I’m indulging in a bit of local-cheese joy the next day.
A bubbly sister welcomes me into her underground cavern of dairy bliss and ornaments that hang everywhere. If lactose-intolerance were ever to strike, there would be a significant chance of walking off a cliff—so strong is the urge in me for cheese.
This cheese is indeed special because of its traditional and unchanged production methods. Unpasteurized, and created with sheep’s milk, I’m again treated to insight into this culture, the mind-frame of locals, when told: “We will never stop making our cheeses this way! Some do not like it, but it isn’t theirs to like. It is ours,” says Begonia’s sister, in a tone both content and slightly belligerent, which I quite like.
Round disks of the stuff sit hardening for the day they will be released into the world via local marketplaces for those who crave this unpasteurized, rich cheese. Beyond the cheeses of goats and sheep is another sleeper of a specialty that locals heave with pride over. Deep dark and red, it infuses and gives tang to local stews and is a mainstay of Extremaduran kitchens—chili peppers (known here as pimientos), which were brought from the Americas centuries ago, planted and tended to delight under the intense summer sun.
Autumn sees the chili collected, and stretched out on racks until they pucker. They are flavoured, and dried over fires of a local oak that not only impart heat but also a swarthy smoke-tinged taste that is divine. The chilies are then ground into a powder, and the region is renowned for this: Pimentón de la Vera—or smoked chili powder.
Ramón Mirón, who is the owner of Pimentón Santo Domingo and the latest in a line of its principals, shows up on a hot afternoon in the closed season to open up the little factory for me and my nose. Joining me is old friend Elisa Alday, and the ever-intense Begonia, whose passion does not apparently end with cheese.
She has tracked down Ramón with a few effective and long-winded conversations in the immaculate streets of Aldeanueva del Camino. Extremadura is a place of few specialties, but what they do have they covet and defend with a rare kind of verve. Which I discover when I make a comment about Hungarian paprika from Szeged and Kalocsa that my Magyar grandmother was obsessed with.
Ramon smiles, almost apologetically, and shakes his head.
“Yes, of course I know them, but ours is better. It is the wood we use to smoke the pimentón. It is many things…”
He stops short of causing any insult, but in his modest way, he has made his point clear.
In every nation, land and valley there lies a quarter or a zone that contentedly defies easy and eloquent classifications. Sierra de Gata, a mountain range whose name is also used for a comarca (a local administrative division) fits beautifully into what I call “a place that defies.”
Rubbing against Portugal to the west, with local dialects that amaze even Spaniards, it feels as it smells: fresh, earthy, worn. Winds rush down the valleys, tunnelling into ferocious heat-filled plains; and in these moments when the currents of air slice though it all, the sense of isolation feels complete and the earth as though it very much belongs to itself.Shepherds, tight-knit clans and cheese, the Gata region also feels a place that hasn’t forgotten itself in any rush forward. Here, if you want something done or something known, you must find someone to ask face to face.
Cigarettes and coffee, tied tightly onto mules and horses, were once smuggled along meandering contraband routes in these valleys from Portugal into Spain. Half-hearted cat-and-mouse chases between authorities and plucky smugglers on horseback continued until just a couple of decades ago.
Like many geographies that haven’t had the burden of successive human waves, the land feels as though it is gently reclaiming itself, a little bit cleansed. Olive trees don’t quite line up symmetrically, and streams rush cold and clear through quiet places. Wolves, hunted into oblivion, are apparently reappearing in rare sightings, perhaps finding these remote lands to their liking.
Extremadura’s grand ethnic and cultural layers began early. The fifth century saw the mobile armies of the Visigoths (known as “Vesi” in Latin) invade much of Spain, and even the silent middle-lands of Extremadura were descended upon.
Three centuries later the nomadic Moorish peoples of northern Africa conquered the Visigoths and ruled for 800 years, introducing enhanced levels of science and math onto the Iberian Peninsula. Within one of these waves into the region—or perhaps from within—small knives (and those who used them with frightening efficiency) became a kind of signature of Extremeños, people from Extremadura.
It had been said to me before coming here that, “The people aren’t so big. But you don’t want a problem with an Extremeño. They are very proficient with knives.”
A tattooed hand offers a beer to me, then quickly a donut. The figure behind the offerings is a wonderful choreography of agile movements in a barely-lit room that swims with paraphernalia seeming to pay tribute to a number of deities all at once—to life, the forest gods, to Jesus.
A single open door blasts a vault of bright sunlight that catches surfaces within and touches a mane of white whiskers.
The man whose home I sit in is one of those rare magnificent beings who is somehow universally familiar. Hovering in his mid-sixties, Serapio is a shepherd whose desire is to share his tales with others and remain on the land, immersed in its every breath. Lean and strong, his beard is the kind, I think, that hipsters would celebrate as an example of perfection.
It is stunning, and it rests below two bright fires of merry blue eyes. The atmosphere around him buzzes with energy, and I along with it.
“I’m sorry there isn’t more to offer you,” he says.
He barely sits, moving every which way, snaking off to get trinkets as though they will explain what time will not allow on this hot day. He cares for about a thousand head of sheep and goats, along with a posse of dogs that hover around his home. Just out of the doorway, one of the dogs—who is mammoth, with a belligerent look in its eye—has me keeping my own eye (and a stick) perpetually at the ready. Serapio screams high-pitched warnings that seem to pierce into one’s very nerve centre, and even the big beast folds into a position of fealty.
Yet Serapio has the feel of someone who wants to gently tell of his life. Beside me, Alfonso assists with the discussion. Serapio speaks Fala, that local dialect that is wonderfully foreign to me, and Alfonso, though a Madrileño (of Madrid) by birth, is a lover of words and culture and delights in being a translator.
Working his entire life on the land has etched fantastic lifelines on Serapio’s face, and it crinkles with each breath. The charisma he exudes is the kind that comes from simple living rather than any deliberate charm. It’s what I call the charisma of the intense. His words too, reflect much that I’ve come to love about Extremadura: honesty, and a direct communication that is entirely authentic.
“I do not know much but I know that one must live life,” he tells me. “It has taken a lot from me, but I can [still] sit with you here now and share my home.”
A long-lost love saddens him still, but he speaks about it so candidly and warmly that I can’t help but admire him even more. Noel Clarasó i Serrat, a Spanish writer from the early 20th century, once wrote: “If we were to speak only when we have something to say, the use of language would disappear in two generations.”
Serapio’s enthusiasm seems a product of that thinking, and I sit back and enjoy his delightful rants and descriptions of everything from local gossip to cigarettes (he doesn’t inhale).
At one point midsentence, he streaks out of the room with feline agility into a still darker room. He emerges with an accordion and rambles off some notes that seem to give him joy.
This sets him off on a tale of lost love that brings Alfonso and I together in a shared ball-in-the-throat moment. Before any of us falls into anything too mushy, Serapio is offering up yet more of his hospitality. And anything that he has, it seems, is on offer.
It’s the way of keepers of the land to be thus hospitable, for it is they who understand more clearly than most that in generosity one finds solace. Not for the first time I wonder if Extremadura, in its remoteness, has perhaps felt like a shunned child, desiring nothing more than to be recognized for its merits while retaining its autonomy.
Through a mist-wreathed gloom I squint at a small remaining testament of Moorish rule in a village whose population is estimated to be between 20 to 30 souls. The Trevejo Castle is an outrageously-attractive crumbling wreck, whose layers reflect the successive waves of invasions. A kind of short history in stone. These ruins, like many, sit like broken citadels of times past.
Trevejo the village tucks into the diagonal ridges and slopes built into the hill, while the castle itself (or what is left of it) stands oddly straight in pieces and blocks. So much of Europe’s countrysides are like this: decaying beauty and derelict structures; but colourful, lively villages which survive and are very much thriving.
People, as always, keep the vital energies of a history alive; or not. Here the lack of mortals and movement (not one little bar!) allows my mind to wander into the fog and into the past of this place. Shutters are locked, doors closed, nothing moves except the mist.
Trevejo Castel is built upon a barely-visible Moorish base. Various orders of knights added to it, but during the French invasion of the 1820s—known rather cordially as the Spanish Expedition—it was largely destroyed. The thick humid air and the remaining keep and walls appear like some vague historical dream through a small gloomy window.
That temporary window leads back to my favoured dairy product. Charles de Gaulle, the famed French general and leader of France, is rumoured to have once asked to everyone and no one in particular, “How can you govern a country that has 246 varieties of cheese?”—referring to his beloved’s penchant for the stuff.
It would be cheese once again that brought Extremadura—the place of so-called emptiness and ruins—into a kind of clarity for me.
Southwest of Trevejo, near the border village of Valverde del Fresno, during a walk along dirt paths and under a sun that felt as if it was melting the air itself, cheese comes willingly back into my life. I am seeking Tio Tomas (Uncle Tomas) and his farmhouse, which lies somewhere ahead. I walk with friend and fellow connoisseur of all things gastronomic Elisa Alday, and her Welsh terrier Panchita. Heat and dust, though minimal, hint at what may come later in the summer months.
Yes, I’ve come to meet another of the elder, wise shepherds—but I’ve also come for his cheese. Even Serapio knew of Tomas and his impeccable product.
Extremadura’s feel over the past weeks has been inextricably linked to food. A few stunning and stalwart recipes done well, again and again. Cheese, olives, Serrano hams, simple wines, game—then once again cheese; always the cheese.
Tomas, another vital constituent of the land here, is an epic shepherd whose days are fading. But vitally to me, he still makes his own cheeses. Anyone who is a septuagenarian and still makes cheese, alone in the countryside, and sells just to friends, rates as someone slightly epic in my mind.
His homestead lies lengthwise along a small ridge, and when we arrive he has been stirred awake by our calls. Puffy-eyed and limping, a gentle being who has, according to Elisa, an uncanny resemblance to Pablo Picasso. Perhaps it is his domed head and almost luminescent eyes, but Tomas radiates a kind of sage wisdom.
He assesses us without rush, and refreshingly doesn’t feel a need to speak or question our purpose, though our visit cannot be a normal or common occurrence. He takes us in slowly with his eyes. When I ask about his cheese, there’s a wonderful little flicker of fire in his still-puffed eyes.
“Yes, I have cheese in the other room. How much do you want?”
He limps into a dark cavernous room, much like the one at Serapio’s. I follow him, this artisan of cheese, in a manner that is part child, part stalker. Coming out of the dark he weighs a big circular disc on an old lever scale that hangs from a hook. I end up with a kilogram of cheese that is made from sheep’s milk—an unpasteurized masterpiece of simplicity and tradition.
A little smile touches his features as he hands it to me. Like many in this part of Spain, Tomas’s ancestors were likely semi-nomads who moved with their herds, who in turn moved with the seasons.
Autonomy, that wonderful narcotic, is very much part of both his and his ancestors’ lives. He tells us that his son is out with the sheep, and his eyes stare out into the rolling hot lands, belying some little bit of envy. His legs cannot manage like they once did, but this little bit of cheese interaction has given him a brief bit of fun and engagement.
He waves us off vaguely as we trudge into the dense heat without any kind of ceremony. This heat over the course of centuries had caused some to withdraw unto themselves, others to exit for other lands, and left many to simply manage and live… and create wonderful cheeses.
Pizarro and his wandering kind left and returned with wealth, reputation, and commodities. I leave with my cheese intact, wondering if this bit of isolation might not be a bad thing. **
- You can read more of Jeff’s expedition stories at www.JeffFuchs.com. This story first appeared in Outpost magazine.