Chef Katie Button knows meat. She’s from the American South, so it’s safe to assume she was more or less raised on pork and beef. Though she moved to Paris to study biomedical engineering, she took a left turn somewhere along the way and ended up working at Ferran Adrià’s world-renowned restaurant, elBulli, in Spain. Now, Button regularly serves up jamón Ibérico at Cúrate, the Spanish tapas restaurant she opened in Asheville, North Carolina, with her husband, Félix Meana. Just last year, they launched a series of culinary tours to southern Spain, introducing travelers to, among other things, their love of meat from the region, and offering them a taste directly from the source: chorizo in Toledo, jamón Ibérico, and some of the world’s best beef in Bodega el Capricho. Here, Button shares her favorite restaurants in Spain, where aged beef, suckling pig, and blood sausage reign. (Vegetarians need not continue reading.)
Linares de la Sierra, Huelva
At Arrieros, it’s all about fresh meat and the cured products of the famous black-footed Iberian pigs of Spain. Driving the roads of this region, you will see oak trees scattered over the dehesa (a type of agroforestry)—the natural habitat for these pigs. They’ve been around for centuries, and theories about how these animals came to be include that a more domestic breed was cross-bred with wild boars. Iberian pigs are physiologically very different from other breeds, with fat both outside as well as inside the muscle fibers, and the impact on flavor is apparent. Here, Cinco Jotas ham is the draw. Arrieros sits right next to a production facility with specialized tours.
Segovia, Castile and León
Segovia’s famous suckling pig is carved tableside with a plate—the crispy skin shatters and the meat falls apart. The region is quite dry, which isn’t ideal for long-life livestock yet perfect for suckling pigs. They’re called “suckling pigs” because they’re slaughtered when before they’ve been weaned.
Jiménez de Jamuz, Castile y León
Owner and chef José Gordon, who raises the oxen for his amazing beef program, offers samplings of meat in all its forms: raw, cured, seared… and the depth of flavor is mind-blowing. Gordon doesn’t follow the usual process of farming beef, when cows are usually slaughtered relatively early, within the first few years of their life. Instead, he allows his oxen a longer lifespan (anywhere from five to 15 years). Grazing the pastures and what grows naturally, the oxen take advantage of a unique terroir: grass grows, but also herbs, like rosemary and thyme. In addition to aged steaks, Gordon makes a product that’s processed with a method usually reserved for pork. He cures the back legs, hanging them and aging them for about three years. The beef is then sliced thin, like the famous jamón Ibérico de bellota, but it’s beef. (It’s called cecina.) Marbled and red, you can see right through it like stained glass.
Burgos, Castile y León
At Casa Ojeda, which opened in 1912, you can taste traditional lechazo, or suckling lamb. Another traditional dish not to miss here is the morcilla de burgos, a blood sausage that uses rice as the binder. True suckling lamb is rare in the U.S. Because they’re really only fed milk, the flavor is melt-in-your-mouth amazing. Types of meat and breeding methods are specific to each region and built on centuries of tradition. The result is something unique and delicious.
These two spots are dedicated to the celebration of beef. Lomo Alto is the fine dining option, and Lomo Bajo is a more casual sandwich shop. Here, you can get the aged buey, or ox, similar to what you'll find at El Capricho, but mature dairy cow and veal are also a part of the menu. I love that they give details about the different breeds of animals. It's best to leave ordering up to your server; just share the preparation and flavors you typically enjoy, and they'll guide you to a particular cut. It's like figuring out which bottle of wine to pick from a massive list—you’d be wise to enlist the help of the experts.
The name of this spot comes from the words tasca and casquería—tasca is a bar serving tapas or other delicious bites, and casquería is the term for offal. As the name suggests, you’ll be sampling tapas that include offal or other unusual cuts—tripe, tongue, brain, kidney, and ear. The menu is broken down by animal—mainly beef, lamb and pork. Try the Tasquería menu, which is a tasting of their best dishes. You can also ask about what they're serving fuera de carta, or off menu, since they're always cooking up something extra in the kitchen. Callos, or tripe, is one of my favorites.
La Sociedad specialize in suckling goat, or chivo lechal. The region of Málaga is known for raising goats for meat, milk, and cheese. This restaurant is famous for its preparation of this traditional regional meat: roasted with olive oil, garlic, and parsley in a wood-fired oven.
San Sebastián, Basque
A Basque-style restaurant, Laia Erretegia focuses on the art of the grill, or asador. The suckling lamb and aged beef, for which they're particularly famous, are incredible, but the I always order the Morcilla de Burgos, or blood sausage, served with cabbage and potatoes.