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They really love their ham

September 27, 2009|Jennifer Olvera

ZARAGOZA, SPAIN — Pigs -- and all their tasty, crackly skinned parts -- are an obsession for many. I profess I have a snout for the stuff, be it the ethereal rinds from the Publican in Chicago or Yuca's bring-me-to-tears cochinita pibil taco -- a must whenever I'm in L.A.

So, it's no surprise that my journey to Zaragoza, Spain -- an Aragonese city famous for its lightly salty Jamon de Teruel, ham from the cool, windy Teruel region -- would include its share of porcine goodness.

Haven't heard of Zaragoza? Although it was the site of the 2008 World Expo, the city -- situated between Madrid and Barcelona -- is often overlooked, even though it's the fifth most populous city in Spain. It's easily reached from either city by Renfe's high-speed AVE rail line. Needless to say, I, who care far more for chocolates than castles and cathedrals, hopped aboard.

After my hour-and-a-half train ride from Madrid, I checked into the elegant Hotel Palafox, an old-school place in the heart of the city. My reason for staying here had nothing to do with its wood-paneled walls or gracious service. No, my reason was a selfish one: I wanted to be near its Aragonia Paradis Restaurant, which specializes in seasonal Aragonese cuisine.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, October 04, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Spain map: In the Sept. 27 Travel section, a map accompanying an article about dining in Zaragoza, Spain, had the wrong mileage scale for the country and surrounding nations. The correct scale should have been 300 miles, not 50.

For lunch, however, I decided to focus on the very thing -- pork -- that beckoned me to Zaragoza.

From the moment I laid eyes on La Jamoneria, I was in love. Partially carved haunches of ham preside over the entry, while inside proprietor Felix Martinez, a champion ham cutter, grabs his razor-sharp Japanese knives from a customized violin case. As he begins shearing perfect shards from the beast, house-label wine flows and plates of paprika-scented dry-cured pork loin and savory salchichon, or Spanish salami, are too hard to resist. This midday meal is a languorous one, and that's OK.

It wasn't the only time I got lucky while meandering through the historic city. Sure, I looked at the Roman ruins, a recently excavated part of the Caesar Augusta Roman Remains Museum. I viewed works by Francisco de Goya at the Museum of Zaragoza and peered into the Moorish Aljaferia Palace and Baroque Basilica of Our Lady of Pilar. But, I'll admit, my heart was elsewhere.

I went on to score sublime -- and shockingly inexpensive -- local olive oil, anchovy-stuffed olives and the sweet, oaky paprika called pimenton dulce, from department store-grocer El Corte Ingles.

After a short nap, I made my way to Aragonia, where I had a heirloom tomato salad, followed by wisps of cured pork and beef, toothsome vegetable paella and wild sea bass with caramelized potatoes and shaved truffles. The meal -- without question -- was worth the trip.

I hit Mercado Central the following morning, where I found fleeting, highly seasonal miniature pears and flat, white-fleshed peaches; picked up savory tomato jam; and dished out a few euros for a bag of freshly packed, tongue-singeing pimenton picante. And, yes, I eyed stall after stall of charcuterie -- jamon that hung from ceilings or taunted me from fluorescent-lighted cases -- but this time I resisted.

It wasn't until I stumbled upon David Boldova's Novodabo that my heart fluttered. This neighborhood gem is the stuff of gastronomists' dreams. Boldova, a 34-year-old wonder, starred in the Spanish cooking show "Entre Platos." Now, he divides his menu between traditional Aragon specialties and modern takes on what's tried and true; his 10-course tasting menu (a steal at 70 euros, including wine) emphasizes the latter.

Among the highlights: a tweaked version of migas -- the Spanish-Portuguese dish of ham-studded breadcrumbs -- topped with a quail egg and served alongside chorizo jelly and garlic "paper" as well as foie gras-stuffed, milk-fed lamb. However, dessert, in a manner of speaking, really took the cake. Dubbed "After 8," a dollop of chocolate mousse topped spearmint granita. Finished tableside with salt and olive oil, it was encircled by raspberry puree and sprinkled with edible flowers.

My final day began with a plate of piping-hot, sugared and salted churros at La Fama Churreria; served with lush melted chocolate for dipping, they were heavenly. After a cup of strong coffee, I meandered down the road to Pasteleria Fantoba, a family-run chocolatier specializing in candied fruit swathed in chocolate, trenza (braided, regional pastry), candied violets and picture-perfect cakes.

That evening, I wandered through Zaragoza's El Tubo tapas district, which is lively and packed with wine bars. Settling on Taberna Dona Casta, I found a table in the cavernous basement (the street level is for revelers) and ordered a tinto de verano, a refreshing soda-and-sangria beverage. After some sprightly, balsamic-dressed salad and the requisite jamon, I moved on to a plate of light-as-air, fried ham fritters known as croquetas.

Then it was time to detox.

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