Finally, the chef smiled. Huddled under a sunlit chestnut tree, he pointed to dry leaves, opened his pocketknife and in a quick motion dug out the hidden orange mushroom I had missed. An hour later, as a warm autumn breeze ruffled the forest, he had filled our basket with porcini, Amanita caesarea and chanterelles.
Earlier last year, as I enjoyed roasted mushrooms at a tapas bar in New York, a Spanish friend reminisced about picking some with his grandfather near Aracena, a town in southwestern Spain. Nestled in the province of Huelva, the area teemed with mushrooms, oak trees and black pigs, he said. I had never heard of Aracena, but I had savored jamón Ibérico, the luscious cured ham made from those pigs, and I knew I wanted more. That was enough to set me on a three-day journey to discover this unsung corner of Spain.
I landed in Seville and drove 90 minutes to Aracena, within what was now a national park named Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche. From my hotel room, the view could have illustrated a crash course in Spanish history - ruins of a Gothic-Mudehar cathedral and a Templar castle built over an Almohad fortress vied for attention at the top of the hill.
Research had shown that chef Manolo Fernandez Ribero and his wife, Susi, who own Cafe Bar Manzano on the main square, offered a whole mushroom menu. They had agreed to take me foraging.
Later that night, as I devoured our harvest - grilled, stuffed, baked and fried - I noticed that most ingredients on the regular menu also came from the surrounding land: Aracena cheese from the meadows, chestnuts from the sierra. And jamón, of course.
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"Ibérico pigs spend the last months of their lives nearby, gorging on acorns," Ribero said.
"There!" I screamed the next morning, pointing to the dark-gray pigs burrowing in the soil, almost causing my driving companion to drop the wheel.
We drove through rolling hills covered with Mediterranean forest redolent of rosemary and thyme. Surrounded by pastures dotted with oak trees and framed by low stonewalls, this was the dehesa, an ancient, man-made terrain where most vegetation is cleared except the oak trees and the grasses on which the pigs graze.
It was my first encounter with the Ibérico pigs, the descendant of the Mediterranean wild hog. I got out, a bit uneasy. (Would they charge at me?) The hogs gathered around me, sniffing my jeans with their long snouts. One lay down at my feet and I knelt to pet his rugged skin. I was silent, later, on my way to meet Valeriano Ramos, the maestro jamónero at Cinco Jotas, a company started in 1879 and now one of the leading producers of Jamón Ibérico de Bellota. How does one reconcile being an animal lover and a carnivore?
Historians claim that Iberian gourmands have enjoyed cured ham - a pig's haunch or shoulder rolled in salt and hung in cellars or caves for 18 to 36 months - since prehistoric times. But there are many types of ham. Jamón Serrano (about 90 percent of the total ham production) comes from white pigs that are fed mostly cereal. Jamón Ibérico comes from black or dark-gray pigs, the Ibérico breed, but only free-range pigs that feed on acorns (bellota) and grasses for the last few months of their lives produce the prized Jamón Ibérico de Bellota. In fact, less than 1 percent of all Spanish ham comes from acorn-fed Ibérico animals. The most rare, the most expensive, the best, I was told.
That's the one I wanted.
At Bodega Cinco Jotas in the town of Jabugo, I inhaled a nutty, earthy smell as I walked the aboveground "cellars" looking for machines, air purifiers or perhaps humidifiers. But all I saw was what looked like a carnivore's cloisters - successions of redbrick arcades holding an infinite number of hanging hams. Here and there, cracked windows let the crisp air swirl in silence.
"The secret is in the cave," said Ramos, bundled up in what looked like an old-fashioned white grocer's coat. "We have hams from 2012 to 2016 and most are sold or reserved."
Ramos, who learned his craft from his father, has worked there for 27 years, and his crew turns the hams regularly to ensure that the breeze hits the meat consistently.
Because the ones closer to the windows are exposed to higher and lower temperatures, as well as different air quality, the hams are rotated. More importantly, they are examined and touched by experts, who determine how each ham is progressing. They can turn them or move them around to ensure that all the hams are equally cured and will be of the same quality and taste.
It was time. I sat at a counter in the Cinco Jotas shop, facing a whole pig leg mounted on a metal support. The knife strode along the red meat, carving petals as thin as silk. I slid one in my mouth. Immediately, fat coated my tongue - nutty, woodsy and salty tastes came next. Tender, but just chewy enough for my jaw to need to move slowly. As soon as I could, I reached for another slice.
The next day, I braved my natural claustrophobia to descend into a real cave, the Grutas de la Maravillas that lies under the hill at the center of Aracena. I was plunged into a world of living rocks, simmering waters and growing crystals. Open to the public since 1914, the cave consists of three levels and a 3,300-foot long path. But when the guide pointed to long, lacy formations hanging from the towering ceilings, I saw only ribbons of jamón. I couldn't wait for my next stop, a tiny village called Linares de la Sierra, where a simple restaurant named Arrieros had made it into the "Bib Gourmant" Michelin Guide - good tables at reasonable prices.
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Another quick drive and I arrived too early for dinner, so I walked into the hammam, or Turkish bath, a surprising sight in this ancient Moorish village of 300 residents. As it turned out, it was the perfect way to daydream until mealtime in the able hands of co-owner and massage therapist Marie-Jo Nieto.
Night descended, bringing a light-blue glow onto the white buildings as I walked the few steps to Arrieros, the haunt of chef Luismi Lopez.
"I cook the cuisine of the dehesa," said the shaggy-haired and bearded Lopez as he peeled the outer layer of a mushroom the size of my palm. Lopez went to culinary school at 40, after he lost a bet with his wife when their bar needed a chef.
As I sat in this ancient shed, with its stone floor and whitewashed walls, the chef made a "simple soup" from the pumpkin he had picked from his garden. I felt as if I were drinking the essence of the plant, intense but sweet, with hints of hazelnuts.
Lopez celebrates the Ibérico but goes way beyond jamón. A cut of presa, a shoulder steak, cooked medium-rare, was tender and woodsy while a hamburger made with ground pluma, the end of the loin, was juicy and delicately fatty. Local, tangy Aracena cheese, melted on a toasted slice of crusty bread, transported me back to the meadows.
Later that night, as I walked the silent cobblestone streets of Aracena, I looked up to the most vivid night sky I had ever seen. Deemed a stargazing destination by the Starlight Foundation, this area kept revealing more secrets. It was just a matter of digging for them.
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IF YOU GO
Where to stay
Hotel Convento Aracena & Spa
Calle Jesus y Maria 19, Aracena
A four-star stunner within a convent dating back to the 17th century, the hotel offers a blend of modern amenities nestled in a historic environment. With a spa, a small pool and even a meeting room nestled in the ancient chapel, the property exudes class and charm.
Rooms start at about $95 a night.
Calle Jose Nogales 17, Aracena
This small boutique hotel boasts a contemporary vibe with minimalist, sleek design. An outdoor glass staircase leads to a cozy pool area with great views of the town. Rooms start at about $65 a night.
Where to eat
Cafe Bar Manzano
Plaza Marques de Aracena 22, Aracena
Cafe Bar Manzano appears to be just a bar, but there's a real cook in the kitchen and the freshest ingredients around. In season, the mushroom menu is a must. Entrees start at about $7.
Calle de los Arrieros 2, Linares de la Sierra
Luismi Lopez is classically trained but he chooses to let each ingredient speak for itself. The food is simple, pure and completely regional. Make sure to budget enough time for a leisurely meal. Lunch only. The restaurant will be closed from June 15 to July 31. Entrees start at about $29.
Calle Pozo de la Nieve 37, Aracena
This classic restaurant serves delicious Spanish fare, local specialties but also various cuts of meats and desserts. Families and group of friends make for a happy, boisterous atmosphere.
Calle Constitucion 3, Aracena
The best pastry shop in town. Try cakes, desserts and pastries you didn't know existed, and don't leave without some homemade chocolate.
What to do
Parque Natural Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche
The national park is a world in itself with forests, farmland, rivers and hills. You can drive around and find the best spot to explore it further on foot with or without a guide. Open 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sept. 1 to June 30. Closed Monday through Wednesday July 1 to Aug. 31.
Bodega Cinco Jotas
Crta. Huelva - Badajoz S/N, Jabugo
It's worth the drive to the village of Jabugo to visit the stunning cellars and the original building where the story of Cinco Jotas started. Stay for a jamón tasting, with sherry.
Tours available Oct. 15 to May 15. Reservation required. Admission is about $16.
Gruta de las Maravillas
Calle Pozo de la Nieve S/N, Aracena
The largest cave in the area, the Gruta de las Maravillas has been opened to the public for more than 100 years and has served as a set for many movies. Situated just under the center of Aracena, the cavern unfurls one marvelous sight after another: limestone sculpted by time, crystals, and colorful stalactites and stalagmites. Open 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Adult admission costs about $9.
La Molinilla Apartamentos y Hammam
Calle Rosario 16, Linares de la Sierra
Push open the doors of this Turkish bath and step into a different atmosphere; a relaxing interlude within a gorgeous village. Call in advance to make sure there is space available, as the locals flock to it. A 50-minute massage starts at about $54.