HUNT­ING for JAMÓN

Taste & Travel - - Dining - by MICHELE PETER­SON

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.

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