The world-famous, acorn-eating Spanish pig
Just an hour north of Seville (like Córdoba, located in the Guadalquivir river valley), the Sierra de Aracena is a tranquil rural world that feels far removed from the bustling city. Geologically, it’s also a world away. This is the only place we are visiting in Spain that is beyond the realm of the Eurasian–African collision zone. Like Portugal, this area has been involved in a continental collision of epic proportions—it was just much longer ago when Europe collided with North America (>250 million years ago). The rocks are very old (~300–600 million years) and worn down; in fact, the landscape resembles the east coast of North America from which this area separated starting around 200 million years ago. Like the east coast, the more resistant rock types form the hills while the less resistant types make up the valleys. It’s a real contrast to the steep rugged terrain of the active mountain belt to the south.
These old rocks are highly metamorphosed and because they are deeply weathered, they form thicker soils then in other places we been, and the rocks are rarely visible. Here is an exposure along a path—note the ancient wall built atop the natural rock face. The red coloration is from oxidation of iron during chemical weathering.
The photo above is on a path that leads from Aracena, the town where we stayed, to Linares de la Sierra which is 5 km (3 miles) away. There is a chain of charming villages that are spaced walking distance (5–10 km) along ancient paths that probably go back to at least Roman times. One day we walked to Linares and another day we walked in the opposite direction to Corteconcepión. The words that kept coming to mind were bucolic and verdant—an fabulously tranquil setting turned green by October rains. Here’s a view along one walk, with the steeple of the church in Corteconcepión in the background.
It was a wonderful time to be in this rural area. Not only was the landscape green, but it was overflowing with abundance. It was the time to harvest wild mushrooms, chestnuts, and fall vegetables. We walked adjacent to small farms with animals and vegetable gardens (called “la huerta” in Spanish—see example below).
Another product of this region is cork. There are two main types of oak trees that are more similar to the California oak than to the eastern oak. One is for producing acorns and the other is for producing cork. We have seen many trees with evidence of multiple harvesting events. On the tree below, the red color is where the cork bark has been removed.
The real agricultural star, however, is the pig that produces jamón Ibérico de bellota—Spanish ham from acorn-eating pigs. It’s amazing. The pigs are pure breeds that live outdoors where each pig must have at least 2 acres upon which to roam—that’s the amount of land they need to get enough acorns. The process is all carefully regulated by the government, and the true bellota meat brings a premium price in markets and restaurants. In Corteconcepción, we visited a farm where they raise the pigs and make the ham, as well as other artisanal meat products. In taste tests we learned to differentiate the bellota-type ham from the corn-fed-type ham. The acorns give the meat an easily-recognizable sweeter taste and more delicate texture. Below are some pigs grazing on acorns in a field along our walk. They are usually more spread out, but on the path we had gathered some acorns that we threw onto their side of the fence—they all came running! If one had to be a pig, this would truly be the life to live!
For the food photo, though, I’ll provide not a ham, but some mushrooms. A tiny restaurant near our rural hotel had a woman cook who specializes in mushroom dishes. We had two dishes, each of which featured a different mushroom that was being gathered in the local region—amazing to us because wild mushrooms are usually a small component of a meal, not the featured attraction. This dish features “tanas a la plancha”—sautéed tanas, which are often referred to as “la reina de las setas”—the queen of the mushrooms. We happened upon a man who was collecting mushrooms on one of our walks, and these were the ones he was most eager to find. Upon cooking they turn yellow, but when growing wild, their top side is a beautiful reddish orange color. We were thrilled to experience so many of the local products in this region.