Some things are worth traveling around the world for; great sights, sounds, and experiences that engage all the senses. That’s why culinary tourism is such a growing trend. Great food and drink are always at the top of my list. One of the most prized foods in the world that any foodie visiting Spain must try is Jamon Iberico, a.k.a. iberico ham, the country’s most prized national delicacy. Costing $1,200 and up for a 15-pound leg, the highest grade is more pricey than Champagne and more esteemed than truffles or caviar.
“It’s one of the reasons I love this country,” says global gastronaut Anthony Bourdain about Spain’s legendary jamon, a melt-in-your-mouth dark red meat cured for three years, then served in paper-thin slices. Deeply flavorful, it’s intensely packed with more umami flavor than Japan’s Wagyu beef. “It’s pornographically good,” Bourdain purrs. “To pass through Spain and not try this most traditional, most loved expression of Spanish history and culture is like letting the great love of one's life slip through one's fingers."
To make sure I didn’t make that mistake on my trip to Spain and Portugal, I booked a premium all-inclusive tour led by Insight Vacations, a five-star luxury coach operator known for its first-class fleet of 40-passenger Mercedes-Benz motor-coaches, partnerships with superior hotels, and insider access for private visits. Insight Vacations knows Spain and Portugal intimately, so they offer an ever-changing variety of itineraries including: the 10-day Spanish Gold tour hitting five of Spain’s major cities; the 12-day Northern Spain trip visiting the best of Barcelona, Madrid, Basque Country and the north coast; and the 14-day Splendors of Andalucía and Morocco excursion.
What would Bourdain do? I decided he’d pick an Insight tour focused on the Iberian Peninsula, including a roadtrip across the Alentejo Plateau to the Spanish oak forests of Sierra de Aracena where black Iberian pigs called “pata negra” breed and feed on the acorns that give them their distinctive flavor. Not knowing what to expect, we pulled into the tiny white-walled village of Concepcion where life circles around two things: a large Catholic church, and Eiriz, the oldest jamon iberico farm and factory. Located in southwest Spain, the latter’s free-range pigs roam green meadows until hand labor and time does the rest. But we didn’t just stop to eat and buy, Insight had a surprise planned. A “vareado” herder took us into the idyllic oak grove to meet the black-hoofed pigs personally while he shook the trees with a long pole to shower the hungry herd with sweet acorn treats. They gobbled them up like candy from a piñata.
Photo Credit: Renegade Photo
We were told how the best Iberian ham comes from the perfect combination of a pure-bred Iberian pig, natural food and traditional production, especially the long drying stages. That’s when we were handed food-safety uniforms to wear for our insider tour of the ham’s entire farm-to-table process. Members of the Eiriz-Martin family took us room to room to show us how and why they practice Eiriz’s 200-year-old traditions. The salting process is critical to enrich the color, flavors and aromas. It is also crucial to impede impurities, so the temperature is kept at 1-degree Celsius with 90 percent humidity to help the salt absorb evenly. “The ham and shoulder on top applies the pressure for the ones underneath, and gravity does the rest. If it’s too heavy it makes it too salty. It’s a very delicate balance.” Next, the meat is hung on hooks in thick-walled rooms where they cure by drying naturally in fresh air for 18 months to three years.
Stepping back into the warm sunshine we were ecstatic to see tables filled with—you guessed it—plates and plates of Eiriz jamon slices worth their weight in gold. We would have gobbled them up like candy, but first the Martins gave us a ham-tasting lesson. Which one is the prized pure Iberian acorn shoulder, and which is from a pig that was also cereal-fed? “Find out by letting it sit on the back of your tongue,” we were instructed by founder Domingo Eíriz Dieguez’s great-great grandson. “Savor it for 10 seconds to match the temperature of your mouth. Then bite it, eat it, take a little white wine to freshen your mouth, then start again. You will notice that one taste will last longer in your mouth than the other, one bites more, one is juicier, and one has more smell.” Once we devoured the jamon, there was also chorizo, salchichón, and lomito to try, plus local sheep and goat cheeses. We were stuffed like pigs.
Photo Credit: Renegade Photo
This deliciously memorable visit was just one of the special experiences that the tour company calls “Insight Moments” (#InsightMoments and #InsightIberia). The company changes and updates its tours constantly as they make fresh, off-the-beaten path discoveries guests will remember for a lifetime.
“Spain and Portugal have so much to offer and are still undiscovered in many ways,” says Insight Vacations CEO John S. Boulding, who joined our group for a few days. “People know the highlights, Madrid and Seville, but places like Evora aren’t on the typical tour circuit. My wife is Portuguese and she never knew about it, so even the local people haven’t discovered some of the places we go. That’s the exciting thing for me. In Spain and Portugal there’s so much untapped. For that reason we’ve added Northern Spain to a lot of our itineraries. It’s just fascinating.”
Jamon iberico whetted our appetite for Spanish tastes, so over the next few days our tour director Toni Aguilar made sure we had the best of all the local specialties, including Seville’s specialty churros con chocolate, while being serenaded by gypsy street musicians, and a tapas dinner at lively El Rinconcillo, Seville’s oldest restaurant serving everything from espinacas con garbanzos (chickpeas and spinach) to bacalao a la riojana (cod with wine sauce), and of course, jamon iberico.
Photo Credit: Pateis de Belem
In Portugal we filled a dockside restaurant for endless platters of local crab, lobster, clams, grilled prawns, and garlicky Guilho-style prawns. We toured the original Pateis de Belem with the only bakery chef who knows the 100-year-old recipe for Lisbon’s famous baked egg custard cups, sipped Portuguese sour cherry Ginjinha liqueur served in chocolate cups and tasted Port while touring historic cellars with descendants of the legendary Fonseca winery founder. Another highlight was dining in a rural dot-on-the-map location at an old olive oil factory reborn as an enigmatic restaurant/art gallery called Sem-Fim, meaning “without end,” for an astounding meal of endless-courses (including more jamon). Every bite was an #InsightMoment that we couldn’t wait to tweet about from the reclining seats of our Wi-Fi-equipped Mercedes coach.
Between meals, my tour group of 30 travelers from North America, Australia, Asia, England and South Africa, was driven all over the map by Helder Almeida (unanimously voted Portugal’s most handsome man by us all). Nearly every stop was a memorable #IberiaMoment. I’m lost for words to properly describe the awe we felt standing inside Evora’s eerie Capela dos Ossos, a 16th century church intricately decorated with human bones from 5,000 monks. Or the overwhelming significance of Córdoba’s medieval Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos fortress, and its massive 8th century Mezquita mosque, a Moorish jewel that holds traces of Islamic, Christian, Catholic and Jewish history.
Photo Credit: Sintra National Palace
We worked off a few calories on other walking tours too, often with literally no other tourists around. We had Evora’s Temple of Diana and the Sintra National Palace all to ourselves. Ditto for the medieval hill town of Monsaraz where I explored the empty main street with Insight’s John Boulding who couldn’t get over the tranquility of the experience. “This is one of those Insight Moments I’ve been talking about,” Boulding said as we walked up a short flight of stairs and found ourselves on the lip of a large castle keep, with no one in sight apart from a few of our tour mates. “The first time I came here Monsaraz blew me away. It’s so unique, so special, so quiet. How lucky are we to have the opportunity to experience beautiful moments like this?”
Asked to choose his personal favorite Iberian #InsightMoment, Boulding took a few minutes to decide. “I wake just before daybreak for my daily run,” he says. “But when I wake in Evora it’s to run round a walled city built by Romans in 57 BC, and as I’m running the sunrise reflects off the ancient stone walls and aqueduct.”
I can vouch for that stunning sunrise view, but find it is impossible to pinpoint a favorite moment from so many remarkable ones at medieval castles, royal palaces, tile plazas, cathedrals, monasteries, and an unexpected Roman temple. We saw enormous monuments and tiny fishing villages, drove across the twin sister of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, and literally stood on the western-most point of Europe that Portuguese and Spanish explorers thought to be “the end of the world.” Taking stock of everywhere we’d been, I realized that in just over a week I saw more world heritage sites than I’ve ever seen in a single trip. “I’m not surprised,” our Spanish tour director Aguilar smiled. “Spain has more protected UNESCO sites than any country in the world.” Helder winked and added, “But Portugal’s are even better.”
Photo Credit: Renegade Photo
Insight Vacations’ eye-opening tour showed us the sights and wined and dined us across the Iberian Peninsula in fine style and with minimal cliques, hanky-panky or drama. Most of the tour group didn’t know each other when the trip began, but we mingled easily and bonded over meals, glasses of Port and Rioja, group selfies, and new memories. We were happy to have witnesses to confirm everything was really happening.
For our big sendoff, the tour planners had one more Insight Moment waiting outside our Seville hotel. At sunset, a long line of horse carriages arrived to parade us through the romantic Parque de María Luis and the massive Plaza de España built for the 1929 World’s Fair. We passed the intricate Alcázar of Seville royal palace, down narrow cobblestone streets where tapas bar customers spilled out from doorways, and worked our way past the world's largest Gothic cathedral and through the grand Plaza de Toros bullfighting ring, the oldest building in Spain.
The grandeur of it all makes New York's Central Park buggy rides seem like a 25-cent mechanical horse. When our carriages stopped to deposit us at one of the city’s best Flamenco shows, we realized how lucky we were, especially when a tour bus pulled up with their not-as-lucky guests shooting jealous looks. Inside the theater, Spanish guitars, castanets, stomping feet and clapping hands created the perfect soundtrack for our final night together. For me, sharing our last sangria toast might have been the most poignant #InsightMoment of our journey. We started off as strangers but ended as more than friends.