Heidi Fuller-love heads out on the trail of Spain's most exclusive Jamon.
Hanging ham hocks click heels like flamenco castanets in the wild Sierra wind as I pull into Finca Montefrio and park with the flourish of a bullfighter in a cape-flinging cloud of dust. At the heart of the Sierra de Aracena, a vast park which extends from the clifftop town of Zufre to Aroche near the Portuguese border, the ranch is ideally situated for raising the pata negra pigs used to produce jamón ibérico.
Ham’s equivalent of caviar, pata negra has been a Spanish staple since Roman times. I’m here on a three day road trip to find out how a pata negra pig’s humble hock can fetch up to €4,000.
It’s the montanera season, when the pigs forage for their supper in the scrub- and tree-studded pastures. Pot-bellied pata negra pigs – some the size of motorcars – snuffle dark snouts in the dirt or pirouette on charcoal hoofs seeking the acorns that give jamón ibérico its distinctive flavour. “Over the next three months we estimate that each pig will eat 1,000 pounds of acorns or more,” ranch owner Armando explains.
Serenaded by the wind in the surrounding oak trees, I sleep soundly. The next day I head for Jabugo, Spain’s legendary centre ofham production.
Jabugo is crowded with ham producers, and there are shops everywhere selling those world-famous ham hocks. At Sánchez Romero Carvajal the region’s biggest ham factory, Manolo – the company’s maestro jamonero – meets me in a colonnaded courtyard, which dates back to 1879. He leads me to a vast, dimly lit room on the first floor. The rafters are strung with several thousand yellowed hocks of maturing meat, complete with dainty pointed hoofs.
This is where the hocks of jamón ibérico de bellota, one of the world’s most expensive hams, are hung for 24-30 months to dry, after being packed in sea salt. Using a splinter of bone, Manolo punctures one of the hams. The sweet, cheesy odour that fills the air tells him that this hock is ripe.
Jabugo is rated as one of the best places in the world for producing pata negra ham. I ask him why. “The air in Jabugo is cold; dry by day but humid at night. This is what gives exceptional flavour to our meat,” he says proudly.
Later at Las Bellotas, a rustic restaurant with a roaring fire near Jabugo’s main square, I sit at a wobbly wooden table and sip syrupy local acorn-infused licor de bellota (acorn liqueur) with a snack of Sánchez Romero Carvajal's 36-month-cured Cinco Jotas ham. The tender slivers of creamy meat with their rich nutty flavour leave me hungry for more.
Arriving at the lively little ham-producing mountain village of Cortegana on the following day, I make a beeline for the Lazo ham factory where factory worker Esteban shows me around. We wander the dim, fragrant corridors admiring the dangling hams. “See that?” Esteban points to the spots of white fat in the wine-red meat. “That’s due to the Iberian pig’s unusual metabolism. It’s the crystallised oleic acid that comes because they feed on acorns. It’s what tells you this is definitely jamón ibérico de bellota.”
Almonaster la Real, the picturesque mountain village next door to Cortegana, is the perfect place to hike and work up an appetite before heading to yet another eatery – Las Palmeras. This cosy bodega, attached to a small hotel where I spend the night, serves traditional local dishes, including sumptuously smooth sopa de castaño, a sort of chestnut and pork stew.
My next stop is Aracena, dominated by the impressive remains of its Moorish castle. The town has emporiums selling everything from ham hocks to ceramic ashtrays, but is best known for its Gruta de las Maravillas caves. Ducking out of burning heat, I spend a blissful hour exploring the enchanting labyrinth of limestone formations and crystalline pools, which was discovered in 1886 by a swineherd hunting for a lost pata negra pig. Then I drive along potholed roads to Monesterio, home of the newly created Iberian Ham Museum, where I spend the rest of the day browsing jamon artefacts and interactive displays.
Seville is my final stop along the Spanish ham trail. There are plenty of dingy, atmospheric bars serving great ham in Seville, but on the advice of Esteban I head for Casa Roman, an atmospheric bodega whose walls are cluttered with sepia tinted oil paintings. The barman first serves me a tumbler of Fino Quinta sherry, then deftly slices the dark red, translucent ham onto my plate. I take a bite – it is melt-in-the-mouth tender. Golden beads of fat glitter like tears on a large hock hung above the bar. “We say that a ham is good when it ‘cries’,” the barman explains.
I take another mouthful – savouring the butter-soft texture and warm nutty flavour. It’s so good I feel like crying myself.