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Tapas in Alpandeire

Manchego cheese, information pills two types of chorizo, and the outstanding Pata Negra Bellota ham.

Most of our eating on this trip is on the farms. With the farm products of such high quality, restaurant eating seems a weak second by comparison. Despite this, we felt it was our responsibility to eat at least some tapas while in Andalucia, this being the birthplace of the tapas tradition. Alpandeire is a very small town with only three hundred residents, so choices are few for dining out. Vanessa and I decided to try one of them, La Casa Grande Hotel-Restaurante, during an afternoon break. The Hotel was opened in 2005, in what was once Alpandeire’s Town Hall, tastefully restored to maintain the structure’s original features. It is almost surprising that a town as small as Alpandeire would have a hotel at all, let alone one of La Casa Grande’s caliber.

At the restaurant’s bar we ordered a couple glasses of a local white wine and a few plates to sample: a tasting of Andalucian Pata Negra Bellota ham, sweet and spicy chorizo, and manchego cheese, and a piquillo pepper stuffed with spinach and salt cod.

Pata Negra Bellota ham, also known as Jamon Iberico Bellota, may be the best cured ham on earth, at least of all the types I have eaten. Italy’s famous Prosciutto di Parma and San Daniele, even in their greatness, are no match. Jesús, the owner of La Casa Grande, is vigilant in stocking Pata Negra of the highest quality. He warned that it is common for companies to sell sub-quality, inauthentic hams under the name Pata Negra. At Pata Negra’s prices (easily running $80 per pound) that is a lot to pay for an impostor.

The true Pata Negra comes from a black-coated breed of pig native to the Iberian Peninsula called Cerdo Negro. The highest quality hams come from those pigs that are allowed to graze in cork oak groves, eating acorns, called bellotas in Spanish. When the pigs are raised in this manner they are referred to as Pata Negra Bellota. Because their diet largely consists of acorns, the fat on these pigs is different. It has a much lower melting point, turning translucent even at room temperature, and according to Jesús the fat melts at body temperature. He says that this makes the fat less harmful as it is mostly liquid when in the human body, reducing the risk of clogged arteries. I couldn’t confirm that, but according to the Wikipedia entry on Jamon Iberico, much of the fat is oleic acid due to the pigs’ acorn diet, which is a monounsaturated fatty acid that lowers LDL cholesterol and raises HDL cholesterol. That means this may be one case in which pork fat is actually good for you (and may also be why Cristobol was so healthy at 87 years by eating a solid piece of cured Iberian pork jowl every morning for breakfast.)

Not only was the Pata Negra phenomenal (not to mention the sweet and spicy chorizo also made from Iberian Bellota pigs and the manchego cheese), but so were Jesús’ stuffed piquillo peppers. He fills them with a spinach and salt cod mixture, deep fries them, then tops with tomato sauce. He was generous enough to give instructions (you will have to use judgment on proportions):

Soak the salt cod overnight. Then remove from water and chop. Blanch the spinach in boiling salted water. Shock in ice water, then squeeze it dry and chop. Mince some garlic, sauté it in olive oil until fragrant but not brown, then add the salt cod and spinach. Cook together for a few minutes. Place this in a food processor and blend to a fine paste, adding a little cream to reach a good consistency.

His tomato sauce is simple. He cooks and seasons pureed tomatoes (canned are fine), which he then blends with cream.

To finish fill the piquillo peppers, which can be purchased in jars already cooked and peeled, with the spinach/salt cod puree, dust with flour, then dip in beaten eggs and deep fry. Top with sauce and serve.

If you are in the mountains of Andalucia near Ronda, La Casa Grande in Alpandeire is less than a half-hour drive away:
La Casa Grande Hotel-Restaurante
Calle Barranco, 76
29460 Alpandeire (Malaga)

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