Alvaro Gonzalez picks up a knife and begins scrutinising bis subject with the intensity of an artist about to touch a canvas with a first blot of paint. Shoppers passing on their weekend rounds in Merida peer at him through the shop window, but Alvaro’s concentration never wavers. ‘Sometimes I think about the pig, and the life it bashed,’ he says, poised over a leg of Ibdrico de Bellota in the jamon store where he works. ‘My work is about respect for the animal and respect for the skill of cutting. I know it has been a happy pig.’
With surgical precision, Alvaro cuts a slice so thin it is almost transparent. The happiness of the pig isn’t clear, although the happiness of anyone eating it is beyond doubt: it is jamon that almost dissolves on the tongue – first with a nutty tang, then a meaty punch and a subtle aftertaste like fine olive oil. Nowhere in Spain is the business of jamon taken more seriously than in Extremadura – the province of breezy sierras, rolling hills and lonely farmhouses backing onto the Portuguese border, of which Merida is the capital. It is the stomping ground of the black Iberian pig, the Rolls-Royce of Spanish swine, and a breed fatally fond of wandering around oak forests and scoffing acorns from among the leaf litter every autumn.
Its diet gives its flesh an earthy taste, and its regular exercise and intramuscular fat produces a flavourful, juicy, magnificently marbled meat. A leg of the best jamon Iberico de Bellota can fetch as much as US$855, meaning a single pig might be trotting about on almost US$3,660 worth of limbs. Rearing and curing is only part of the story: just as important is the craft of the cortador, tasked with cutting slivers of jamon as thin as possible so the meat can breathe.
It is a skill that takes time to master – expert cortadores are highly sought after for weddings and not a few amateur cutters end up in A&E with bloody hands. ‘The very first time I tried to cut jamon, I made a mess of the leg,’ says Alvaro, having produced a platter of neat symmetrical cuts. ‘But you learn something new every time you cut a leg. Cutting is p art of our identity in this part of Spain.’ Love of jamon is nothing new to Extremadura: many credit the Roman senator Cato the Elder as the father of the original recipe. It is not the only legacy of Roman rule here – the very name Extremadura is said to derive from the Latin for ‘extremely difficult’, on account of the long, exhausting march from Rome out to the western frontier of the Empire.
Taking an afternoon stroll around Merida, it’s clear the Romans nonetheless found the energy to build monumental structures once they’d arrived here. Ancient buildings pop up unexpectedly beside their modem counterparts: a street away from Advaro’s store, a temple of Diana sits matter of factly between a pharmacy and a bank, and not so far away, a railway line rattles beneath a Roman aqueduct. Summer nights see 21st-century audiences filling the town’s greatest architectural treasure – an exquisitely preserved 1st-century BC theatre, dug up only in 1910 after being used for nearly two millennia as a mbbish dump, now restored to its original use. And then there’s Merida’s vast collection of mosaics, recovered from the foundations of villas, reassembled in the town’s museum and variously depicting favoured Roman pastimes: glugging wine, charging about the oak forests of Extremadura and, of course, hunting wild pigs.