It was a simple, timeless-looking tavern, though in the low evening light no sign was visible. Peering inside through a wrought-iron gate I saw several occupied tables, half-tiled walls, a stag's head sprouting impressive antlers, a priest and, most important of all, a leg of jamón on the counter. Within seconds I was inside, seated at a wooden table. Photos of partridges and footballers hung randomly between rusty rifles and kitchen utensils. The voices were all Spanish. Taberna Góngora felt like an auspicious start to my gastronomic investigation of Córdoba.
Córdoba lags behind Seville and Granada in terms of visitor numbers, but for me it's Andalucia's most beguiling, authentic city. The delights start with the orange trees in the patio of the Mezquita mosque and continue through the web of whitewashed backstreets and flowery patios, into the exquisitely crafted old synagogue, past the Roman temple and into a convent to buy a bag of homemade perrunas (almond biscuits). Onwards, to the fabulous Palacio de Viana with its 12 patio gardens, each one more perfumed and evocative than the last, and finally ducking into a Peña Flamenca for a homemade paella and an improvised cante jondo.
From a gastronomic point of view, Córdoba excels thanks to its position in a triangle formed by the Sierra Morena, source of excellent game and pata negra ham from Los Pedroches, the vineyards of Montilla-Moríles, where fino and dessert wine are produced; and the olive groves of La Subbética. With the essentials covered, Córdoban taverns push the boat out into oxtail or wild boar territory: all part of the sierra tradition. There's plenty of fresh fish, too, brought from the nearby Mediterranean.
In summer, a cornucopia of quality vegetables ripen; the juiciest tomatoes become Córdoba's ubiquitous salmorejo soup, liberally laced with olive oil and aged sherry vinegar. Salmorejo is the gastronomic barometer of a Córdoban tavern. On this trip, the first I tasted, at Taberna Góngora, was thick and creamy with great chunks of garlic and a generous sprinkling of jamó* and boiled egg. It was beaten a few days later by an intense version I came across in Cabra, a small town of La Subbética, as part of a €9 menú del día. Fewer breadcrumbs and a larger dose of ambrosial olive oil defined it and made it positively unforgettable.
Nearly all the taverns have a shaded internal patio to escape the merciless summer heat – akin to the courtyard restaurants of Damascus, hardly surprising as it was the Umayyad dynasty from that city which founded Córdoba back in the 8th century. This announced two centuries of cultural and intellectual glory, the heyday of Al-Andalus, and the flowering of its gastronomy thanks to a wealth of new ingredients.
Other traditions are more Spanish. At the Casa el Pisto, as you chew through your ración (sharing plate) of pig's trotters you can't avoid Córdoban bullfighting history in countless photos of the great Manolete (a Buster Keaton lookalike) and fellow toreros. The chequerboard marble floor here has witnessed a stream of artists, celebrities and intellectuals since 1880.
Córdoba, like other big Spanish cities, has experienced a slow groundswell of nueva cocina. One place that has set the bar high for innovative raciónes is Ziryab, a sleek white tavern named after a 10th-century sybarite who imported the art of fine dining from Baghdad. Here chef Ramó* Montilla produces exquisite seasonal dishes that mirror the Andalus cultural setting, all with a contemporary twist. I was wowed by a slab of juicy suckling pig crowned by a crispy skin and sitting on a dollop of lemon purée, which I mopped up with gently wilted pak choi. Equally, a sublimely textured bacalao (dried salt cod) came with black potatoes – a startling visual effect produced by squid ink.
At Góngora, a plate of jamó* ibérico from Los Pedroches had proved to be a luscious treat. At under €6 for a half ración, it led me straight to a second.
Next day I drove straight to the source of those black Iberian pigs that snuffle for acorns beneath centennial holm oaks. This was in the bucolic dehesa, an ambivalent word that refers both to agricultural stone wall defences and to the wooded hills and meadows that undulate west to Extremadura and the Portuguese border. Nearly all the farms of Los Pedroches rear Iberian pigs alongside Charolais cattle, sheep and goats.
At Ibesa, the smaller of two local farming co-operatives, I was amazed to see thousands of legs of ham suspended in vast, naturally ventilated cellars, a kind of purgatorial penumbra where they remain for up to three years to reach optimum condition – and price.
Upstairs I sampled some of the velvety jamón, lomo and salchichón, all sliced and vacuum packed by hand. This was located in Villanueva de Córdoba, the centre of all things porcine. Lunch at La Puerta Falsa, a labyrinthine restaurant, kicked off with a local soup, salmorejo jarote ("hunter's gazpacho"). The liquidised tomato concealed morsels of rabbit and partridge.
Later, at the Finca Cortijo Era Alta, I watched pigs trot over the meadows to gorge themselves on acorns, before I finally retired to contemplate my own expanding girth, holed up in an 18th-century mansion-hotel of Dos Torres, an unexpectedly elegant Renaissance town of this sierra. After some pungent local cheeses with a glass or two of Rioja to toast the beautiful main square, I was fast asleep, dreaming of salmorejo, acorns... and jamó* ibérico.
Travel essentials: Córdoba
* Fly to Madrid or Málaga, then reach Córdoba by AVE high-speed rail (renfe.com).
Eating & drinking there
* Taberna Góngora (00 34 957 490 362). Casa El Pisto/Taberna San Miguel (00 34 957 478 328). Ziryab, Calle San Felipe 15 (00 34 957 484 138; bodegasmezquita.com). Bodegas Campos, Calle Los Lineros 32 (00 34 957 497 500; bodegascampos.com).
* Hotel Posada de Vallina, Córdoba (00 34 957 49 87 50; hhposadadevallina.es). Doubles from €69. Palacio del Bailio, Córdoba (00 34 957 498 993; hospes.com); from €184; both room only.
* La Puerta Falsa (00 34 957 120 110; lapuertafalsa.es). Ibesa (00 34 957 122000; ibesa.es). Centro de Initiativas Turisticas (00 34 957 156102; citlospedroches.com).