It’s time to meet the meat in An­dalu­cia

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - People & Places -

Jabugo looks un­re­mark­able. Its hills are crowded with nar­row streets lined with whitepainted houses; you could be in any num­ber of small An­dalu­cian towns. But there is some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary here that’s worth driv­ing 70 miles (110km) from Seville to Huelva Prov­ince to ex­pe­ri­ence. It’s Spain’s great­est gift to gas­tron­omy: jamón ibérico.

Hun­dreds hang from ceil­ing hooks in the cur­ing cel­lars at Cinco Jo­tas, one of the most renowned of the town’s 26 pro­duc­ers. It’s an ar­rest­ing sight; as they ma­ture nat­u­rally (the en­vi­ron­ment is con­trolled solely by open­ing and clos­ing win­dows) over a pe­riod of up to five years, the hams have taken on a waxy ap­pear­ance and look un­real, like fac­sim­i­les. If some­one told me I was look­ing at Damien Hirst’s lat­est cre­ation I wouldn’t have doubted it – and at £500 to £575 per 13-18lb (6-8kg) ham, they com­mand a sim­i­larly hefty price.

When I ask how much meat is con­tained in the war­ren of rooms, I’m met with eva­sive­ness. “I can’t tell you in case you’re the tax in­spec­tor,” jokes Jago Ch­ester­ton, who man­ages the up­mar­ket bou­tique shop at­tached to the cel­lars (there’s also an ex­hi­bi­tion space that tells the story of the 140-year-old busi­ness and ex­plains the process that in­volves trim­ming the hams of skin and fat, cur­ing in sea salt, wash­ing and then hang­ing).

He ex­pertly carves a ham at the end of our €15 tour and I sam­ple three cuts, all ac­com­pa­nied by dry white sherry that Ch­ester­ton rec­om­mends to en­hance the flavour. First broad, stubby strips from the shank with al­most even amounts of meat and fat; then or leaner slices from the flank. Both are de­li­cious; wafer thin and glis­ten­ing with the ivory-coloured fat that coats your fingers when served at the cor­rect tem­per­a­ture of be­tween 68-75F (20-24C) to re­lease the full ar­ray of com­plex savoury flavours. But it’s cut from be­neath the hip bone at the bot­tom of the ham, that de­liv­ers the most in­ten­sity.

“As the hams have been hang­ing, any fat that’s melted is con­cen­trated in the and brings with it lots of flavours and aro­mas,” ex­plains Ch­ester­ton. Eat­ing it bears com­par­i­son to tast­ing Perig­ord black truf­fle or osci­etra caviar for the first time. It has an earthy, al­most resinous aroma; a firm but not chewy tex­ture and a rich, nutty, deeply savoury flavour that’s salty and but­tery with just a hint of sweet­ness. Like a fine wine, it has great length, lin­ger­ing pleas­antly in the mouth.

To dis­cover why it tastes so good, we head a few miles south to the

the partly de­for­ested pas­ture that makes up most of the 455,000acre (184,000-hectare) Sierra de Ara­cena and Pi­cos de Aroche nat­u­ral park (of which Jabugo is also a part).

We ar­rive at Huerta del Llano farm at dusk, just in time to see the farmer call­ing the pure-bred black Iberico breed pigs in to their barn for the night. “Way, ray,” he calls out into the rapidly fall­ing night and the an­i­mals run like a minia­ture ver­sion of the

wilde­beest stam­pede. Al­though closely re­lated to wild boars, the pigs are harm­less and en­ter­tain­ing to watch as they scratch against the holm oak trees that dot

The hams of An­dalu­cia are le­gendary

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