A weekend in Badajoz: the "Dehesa de Extremadura" Iberian ham route
Plate of ham at the Cayetano Pantojo factory. Higuera la Real, Badajoz.
Pigs at pasture. Higuera La Real, Badajoz.
Ham curing plant at the Cayetano Pantojo factory. Higuera la Real, Badajoz.
Cayetano Pantojo cured ham factory. Higuera La Real, Badajoz.
This route is a chance to enjoy and experience everything to do with the world of Iberian cured ham from an insider's point of view. You'll see signs of this tradition everywhere you look in the mountain areas in the south and west of Badajoz, visit the typical wooded pasture known as the "dehesa", walk among pigs, tour a ham factory and relax in small villages with whitewashed houses.
In total, the "Dehesa de Extremadura" of Iberian ham route in Badajoz includes 33 municipalities in an area of less than 150 kilometres. These short distances mean you can see several towns and villages in two days, and enjoy a weekend with lots to do but at a leisurely pace. We suggest a tour so you can get the most out of your trip.
Saturday morning – Visit to the wooded pasture, or "dehesa"
This is one of the high points of the route –the opportunity to stroll around large expanses of countryside dotted with holm oaks, and accompanied by a multitude of pigs that forage freely for acorns in the landscapes of Extremadura. This free-range grazing period is known as the "tiempo de montanera" and is one of the hallmarks of Iberian ham: the pigs grow up running around with plenty of exercise in the heart of nature, and feed naturally for most of the year. Today many of these special pastures open their facilities to tourists. You can organise your visit though the website of the Iberian Ham Routes and through the tourist offices in the towns and villages along the route. The best time of year to enjoy these pastures is between October and May. These are the months of the "montanera", or free-range foraging, and you'll be walking among pigs weighing over 100 kg that seem completely unaffected by your presence and will accompany you as you listen to the farmers' explanations. We recommend visiting the "dehesa" in the morning, as this time of day is particularly attractive thanks to the sunlight and the hint of morning mist which has yet to completely disperse. A good place to start the route is the area of Higuera la Real and Fregenal de la Sierra, where you could begin your visit to the pastures at around ten in the morning. While you're walking through the countryside with its "dehesas", you'll learn that the pigs –or "guarros" as they're known by many in the area– are separated into plots according to their weight –which may reach 150 kilos–, that they undergo constant health checks, and that they spend up to two years at liberty while they're being prepared for hams. The factories or ham curing plants are located in the vicinity of the "dehesa", and some are open to visitors. You'll see first-hand the whole process of preparing Iberian ham, which can take up to three years. You can sample the best hams in the area and take part in ham slicing workshops, where you'll learn that the best way to cut the ham when you plan to eat it quickly is with the trotter facing upwards, and downward if you're planning to eat it more slowly. You can also buy Iberian ham in the very place it's prepared. Remember that to see a factory in operation it's a good idea to visit on a weekday. In any case, we recommend checking to see whether there's any activity scheduled during your visit. If you're interested, the tourist offices and the Iberian Ham Route can arrange a multitude of activities such as tasting sessions of Iberian pork products, exhibitions of ham slicing, bicycle routes through the wooded pastures, rides in 4x4…
Saturday afternoon – The world of Iberian pigs and Fregenal de la Sierra
We recommend an Iberian pork-based lunch in any of the restaurants in Fregenal de la Sierra or Higuera la Real before the afternoon's tour. It should definitely include acorn-fed Iberian cured ham, and typical dishes such as the fried breadcrumbs known as "migas extremeñas", "mandanga" (a type of stew), Iberian fillet steak, or "guarro frito" (fried pork). Higuera la Real is the location of the Iberian Pig Visitor Centre (CICI), housed in what was once the cloister of a convent. The visit is highly educational, and reveals everything to do with the world of the Iberian pig. What's more, the centre is well worth a visit if you're with children. Under 50 kilometres away you can visit the Iberian Ham Museum in Monesterio, a key space for understanding all the traditions involved in rearing Iberian pigs, the ritual slaughter and festive event known as "la matanza", and the preparation of Iberian ham. A good way to round off the visit on Saturday is to walk around Fregenal de la Sierra, a small village of beautifully conserved white houses and a Templar castle with a bullring and a produce market on its interior. Here you'll find the tourist office, which will organise free guided visits with advance reservation. The explanations are in Spanish. In addition to the visit to the monuments of Fregenal de la Sierra, we recommend making a stop at the convent of La Paz, where the nuns make delicious handmade sweets and pastries that you can acquire directly through the revolving window.
Sunday – Cultural visits and Jerez de los Caballeros
You can spend the morning visiting some of the cultural attractions available in the areas around the towns and villages. For example, barely ten kilometres from Higuera la Real is the Capote Celtic Site and Visitor Centre, which is also very near the Picos de Aroche y Sierra de Aracena nature reserves, and contains archaeological remains dating from the fifth and first century B.C. Another interesting visit is to Tentudía Monastery in Calera de León, about 30 kilometres from Fregenal de la Sierra. If you have time, it's a good idea to take a walk around the area. To round off the weekend we recommend visiting Jerez de los Caballeros, just under 25 kilometres from Fregenal de la Sierra. As you approach from a distance you'll notice three of its towers, belonging to the churches of San Bartolomé, San Miguel and Santa Catalina. The tourist office organises visits to these churches and to all the other churches in the town, including the oldest, Santa María de la Encarnación. The most notable features of the churches are their towers, –particularly the decoration on the tower of the church of San Miguel Arcángel, with a marked Portuguese influence–, and a number of the altarpieces. Other interesting sights are the House-Museum of the discoverer Vasco Núñez, the Puerta de Burgos gate and particularly the Templar fortress. Here you should make a point of taking a walk in the Morerías park and enjoying the views it offers, as well as sections of the ancient wall.
Things to remember
You can find more information on the website of the Iberian Ham Route. It is highly recommended that you organise your visits to the pastures and curing plants through the tourist offices or the Iberian Ham Route. They will put you in contact with companies organising activities in the "dehesa". Remember that pigs are kept on private estates, and you should on no account enter without permission. You may see pigs from the road, but they tend to shy away from noise. Don't forget a visit to the "dehesas" is an excursion to the countryside, so it's advisable to wear comfortable clothing and rubber or damp-resistant shoes. Other towns and villages on the "Dehesa de Extremadura" Iberian Ham Route in Badajoz are Azuaga, Fuentes de León, Llerena, Montemolín, Oliva de la Frontera and Valencia del Mombuey, to name a few. All year round there are events in the area dedicated to the Iberian pig. A few examples are Iberian Ham Day in Monesterio (held in September and including a ham slicing competition, tasting sessions and other activities revolving around Iberian ham), the ham, sausage and traditional "matanza" or pig slaughter fair in Llerena (this is a free gastronomic event on the theme of the traditions surrounding the Iberian pig, and takes place in March), and the Iberian Ham Fair in Jerez de los Caballeros (held every May).