HUNTING for JAMÓN
I’M HIKING THROUGH A FOREST OF OAK trees following a farmer who is bleating like a pied piper. Emerging from a gully is a herd of black Iberian pigs, snuffling in response. If they weren’t so focused on following the swineherd, I would run for the hills. These pigs look nothing like pink-cheeked Babe of Hollywood fame. These are the world’s original swine, with a lineage dating back to the Paleolithic Stone Age period when the earliest humans decorated Spain’s caves with images of wild boars. Their powerful hooves stab the earth as they devour their prized food, the Spanish bellota acorn, as fast as the farmer can shake them from the tree with his long wooden staff.
My experience is part of a culinary journey exploring the secrets of producing Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, one of the world’s finest hams. It’s a signature experience offered by Insight Vacations, a tour operator that’s been designing luxury itineraries for more than 35 years. Our farm-to-plate odyssey is taking us to Jamones Eíriz, an artisanal producer located deep in the Natural Park Sierra de Aracena in southwestern Spain. Our goal is to learn the mysteries behind the ruby red wonder known as Jamón Ibérico de Bellota.
Our introduction to the legendary ham begins in a grove of oak and chestnut trees nestled in rolling hills of Spanish pasture known as the dehesa. Here, thick tree trunks are anchored to the ground with gnarled roots and the ground is well trodden, hammered by hundreds of hooves.
“We believe in going deeper,” says John Boulding, the CEO of Insight Vacations who is accompanying our group of culinary adventurers. “Our tours focus on exploratory local experiences rather than the typical tourist track.”
We’re definitely going deep. I’m dodging garnet-coloured droppings the size of hockey pucks on the forest floor.
“Red dung means the pigs haven’t been fed industrial feed,” explains our host Domingo Eíriz. His family-owned company has been producing ham since 1842 and despite his dapper appearance he’s obviously adept at navigating the slippery trails of the Spanish countryside.
…THE ONLY FAT HIGHER IN OMEGA-9 IS OLIVE OIL…
Unlike other Iberico pigs who consume grain and other feed in typical industrial production, at Jamones Eíriz, piglets are released to roam free in the countryside at 10 months of age, feasting on food they forage such as wild mushrooms, bitter acorns and grass. But there’s one food they crave.
“They love sweet acorns,” explains Eíriz, “but we need them to eat bitter ones too in order to create the perfect blend of taste in the meat.”
We watch as Manolo, the farmer, shakes the tree branches to release the acorns to his waiting posse of pigs. During the four months of grazing known as the Montanera, each Iberian pig has an acre to itself, devouring 10 kilograms of acorns daily.
“An acorn diet is a requirement of the Jamón Ibérico de Bellota label,” adds Eíriz. And a premium price — the Bellota label can fetch double the price of regular jamón.
As we watch the pigs graze, their noble Iberian lineage is evident in their distinctive colour, more chalky blackboard than pure black, and their size. Their muscular shoulders look Olympian and their powerful black hooves or pata negra stab into the earth as they climb the hill with ease.
Although it’s tempting to spend more time roaming the pastoral countryside, it’s soon time to explore the second phase of production. Fortunately we’re able to miss the matanza or sacrifice, a time when traditionally a Spanish family gathers to slaughter a pig and preserve the meat.
Instead, we don lab coats, hairnets a and protective booties and step
inside the salting rooms to witness the curing of hams. Once delivered from the abattoir, the paletas (front legs) and the jamones (rear legs) are chilled and tucked in beds of dry sea salt from Cadiz, Andalucia. Then, they’re hand-washed, dried and hung from the ceiling so the fresh mountain air can circulate around them. And a unique transformation begins to take place.
“Look at this fat,” explains Eiriz, pointing to leg of garnet red meat marbled with glistening golden ribbons. High fat content is a good thing. Due to antioxidants in the wild acorns and the natural curing process, saturated fats are transformed into healthy monounsaturated fats high in oleic acid. The only fat higher in Omega-9 is olive oil.
Curing also creates depth of colour. Younger hams are lighter pink while those aged four years are deep red. “It’s much like the aging of fine wine,” says Eiriz.
We’ve worked up an appetite with our touring so we head to the bodega, the Eiriz family farmhouse where we’re met by platters of lacy jamón. Served in paper-thin slices at room temperature at first bite, it’s melt-in-your-mouth tender sweetness. Then, more complex notes begin to emerge and it becomes evident why Jamones Eíriz has garnered so many international gold awards for taste. It’s heavenly and addictive. “Watch for a nutty flavour,” says Eíriz as our tutored tasting progresses. “It’s due to acorn-fat.”
More culinary adventures await in the courtyard where a selection of aromatic Condado de Huelva wine is served. In between bites of raw milk cheeses and crusty artisanal bread, we explore other Eiriz products such as Caña de Lomo Iberico de Bellota, a traditional cured loin dusted with paprika, garlic and salt. We learn that the ultimate ham is Jamón de Huelva, a denomination of origin verifying it’s been crafted within the region of Huelva.
Each taste of handcrafted cuisine makes me feel even more connected to the land, with its ancient shale fences and graceful oak trees. Thankfully it’s protected as a Biosphere Reserve. Let’s hope it stays that way and that the traditional Iberian way of life continues. For Jamón Ibérico de Bellota isn’t just a taste of Spanish countryside. It’s a symbol of the country’s proud heritage.
THIS PAGE CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT Spanish acorn; Tasting at Eiriz; Platters of jamón for tasting; Manolo the swineherd shakes acorns to wating swine.