Decidedly Spanish jamon is on a roll, putting the nose of Italy’s Parma ham seriously out of joint. Only a few years ago, most foreigners’ idea of Spain’s ham was tough and ropey, derived from the product churned out by huge ham factories on the east of the peninsula. These specialise in industrially produced ham from the white pig, an iniquitous import.
It’s not always bad, in fact some jamon serrano can be delicious, notably those from Teruel and Trévelez, but it doesn’t quite manage that sweet, velvety, melt-in-the-mouth factor.
At last the secret has leapfrogged the Spanish border: Jamon iberico de bellota, which is now easy to find in London, New York or Hong Kong – at a monstrous price. This type comes from the native black pig that for thousands of years has inhabited the dehesa (hilly oak forest) munching acorns, mushrooms, roots, olives, grass, herbs – whatever its pokey snout finds – a true Mediterranean diet.
Last week I went to check out its most celebrated source – Jabugo, a name now synonymous with highly regulated, top grade, acorn-fed Iberian ham. It’s not the first time I’ve been on the jamon trail. A few years ago I visited the lesser known area of Los Pedroches, north of Cordoba, source of equally choice Iberian ham, slightly sweeter in flavour, but less marketed outside Spain (read my blog here). Two other regions complete Spain’s production: Extremadura and Guijuelo (home to the famous Joselito brand) near Salamanca.
Jabugo itself is a rather dreary village which I’d driven through a few years back – nothing but ham-drying units, or secaderos. However the Jabugo name is now applied to hams produced throughout the Sierra de Aracena, a range of beautiful verdant hills knocking on Portugal’s border (and the wonderful Alentejo – read all about it and cork production in my post here), and just over an hour’s drive northwest of Seville.
The hills around Aracena are seductively lush, dense with chestnuts, pines, cork oaks (as above), gall oaks and of course holm oaks, the last three generating the precious acorn whose total season, called the montanera, lasts from September to March.
Its hub, Aracena, is an attractive little town of whitewashed houses spilling down a hillside overlooked by the requisite Moorish castle. Ham is not the only big draw here, there’s also a famous grotto (no, I didn’t see it) and a passion for mushrooms – of all shapes and sizes. Fungi with exotic names like gurumelos and boletus accompany game like partridge and rabbit – but there’s also plenty of that divine jamon, salchichon, chorizo, lomo, presa and more; unsurprisingly piggie dishes rule the menus of Aracena’s little restaurants and tapas bars.
I tried three low-key tapas bar-restaurants, all good, so I’m happy to share their addresses. All have outside tables. The Bar Manzano on the main square, or Plaza del Marqués, is a friendly, buzzing tapas bar that also conjured up simply prepared raciones of mushrooms and pork (excellent presa).
In the evening, the Rincon de Juan (Avenida Portugal, by the Iglesia de Carmen) had a great choice of freshly made, keenly priced tapas – their salad of local tomatoes simply doused in olive oil and a sprinkle of sea-salt were heavenly.
The Los Angeles (Calle San Pedro 16) was nearer the tourist action, i.e. the grotto and souvenir shops, and its very decent 12€ lunch menu del dia had a delicious sopa de arroz, spiked with – predictably – jamon (above). 15 minutes drive away, in the charming village of Linares de la Sierra, is the top restaurant of the area: Arrieros – but that’s another story.
But I’ll cut to the chase. Pigs. One of the oldest of the 45 or so Jabugo producers is Eiriz, founded in 1842 by the same family that runs it today. Domingo leads tours around the farm and drying-rooms in the hamlet of Corteconcepcion, a short drive from Aracena. Two other brothers and their cheerful 77-year old mother are also involved in the business.
At its heart is a typical whitewashed Andaluz house (above) built around a patio crammed with potted plants and a lemon tree. One of the fun aspects of this visit is the family kitchen, a huge room filled with pots and pans, baskets of fruit & veg, a sewing machine, family knick knacks – and legs of ham. But I digress…
Through a gate we entered the idyllic dehesa, rolling hills dotted with holm and cork oaks. With the lure of some tossed grain (it was late afternoon feeding time), a gang of dark grey pigs rapidly materialised, squealing, squeaking and snorting towards us. As the law stipulates a minimum of one hectare of dehesa for each pig to roam in, Eiriz only raises about 20 of them, and the vast curing-sheds are in fact mostly filled with legs bought in from nearby farms.
You might question the grain, thinking it shouldn’t be fed to pure bellota pigs. In fact some Iberian pigs are raised entirely on cereal, producing less expensive ham that is labelled jamon Ibérico de cebo. And as acorns are only around during the montanera (acorn season), feed for the top pigs is supplemented during the rest of the year.
Every year Eiriz alone produces nearly 3,000 hams, some grain-fed, the majority acorn-fed. And it’s the acorn that is key – bringing healthy oleic acid, the same as in olives and so giving rise to the pigs’ epithet: “acorns on legs”. The knock-on effect is that it reduces cholesterol – eat that fat, it’s good for you!
My visit being late August (not the optimum time), acorns were still scarce. Far better to go in October or November when the little fellas are trotting around on their slender legs in search of bellota gold. Incidentally, this exercise vastly improves the quality of the meat. Below are three little pigs… honk honk honk.
At the top of the hill is a pig “spa”, a sloppy pool of mud in which they wallow and chill out – apparently to help digestion. Some took a leisurely roll, before chasing Miguel, Domingo’s assistant, who scattered the sought after cereal. When, much to my chagrin, we left (it’s easy to become attached to these endearing creatures), we met the porquero brother carrying a bucket of kitchen scraps. He, I gathered, is something like a pig-whisperer, i.e. knows each one individually and has a calming influence – right up until the day they are trucked off to slaughter.
The adjoining secaderos are a complex system of vast rooms with different functions (salting, rinsing, sweating and finally drying in the unpolluted mountain air). It’s a painstaking production process, as each leg of ham needs to be regularly checked. Some hang for up to 3 years, although as Domingo told me, unlike wine, jamon age does not necessarily mean quality.
Back in the kitchen, it was time for the jamon tasting accompanied by local Huelva wines. White wine, particularly fino, is considered best to accompany jamon as it cleans the palate, though an orangey liqueur made from mandarin peel also hit the spot.
I left satiated and satisfied, full of the joys of pigs and piglets, of the beautiful dehesa and of course of jamon Ibérico de bellota… hard to beat at its source.