Worth Her Salt

Meet the pi­o­neer­ing fe­male cel­lar mas­ter at one of Spain’s great­est jamón ibérico pro­duc­ers

SAVEUR - - Eat The World - BY GIL­LIAN BRASSIL

Jamón ibérico de bel­lota is ar­guably Spain’s great­est con­tri­bu­tion to the world of food. It’s a melt-in-your­mouth trea­sure and priced to match, with pack­ages in the United States fetch­ing more than $200 a pound. Fa­mously, it’s made from free-range Ibe­rian pigs, who for­age and feast on the acorns that al­low them to pack on fla­vor­ful fat.

But a plump pig leg doesn’t just be­come a prized ham. The trans­for­ma­tion oc­curs thanks to a slow-cur­ing process as tra­di­tional and hands-on as black­smithing. At Cinco Jo­tas, one of the old­est and most pres­ti­gious pro­duc­ers, much of the process is di­rected by Cristina Sánchez, the re­spon­s­able

de bodega, or cel­lar mas­ter. She is a na­tive of Jabugo—where Cinco Jo­tas is based and where nearly all of the town’s 2,400 res­i­dents work in the in­dus­try. As teenagers, Sánchez and a group of friends be­gan butcher­ing and cur­ing their own hams for the hol­i­days. At 24, she joined Cinco Jo­tas as a fourth-gen­er­a­tion em­ployee. And only five years later, she be­came its first fe­male re­spon­s­able de bodega.

“I al­ready knew ev­ery­one,” Sánchez says, but that’s not to say her en­try into an old-fash­ioned trade as a young woman was seam­less. Sán- chez man­ages the dozens of men who keep the cel­lars in equi­lib­rium us­ing meth­ods that are down­right 19th cen­tury: open­ing win­dows to reg­u­late the tem­per­a­ture, sprin­kling the dirt floor with wa­ter to al­ter the hu­mid­ity. “For a young woman to come in and tell all th­ese men how to do their jobs, some­thing they’d been do­ing all their lives? It was com­pli­cated,” she says.

Still, Sánchez knew her way around a ham, so it didn’t take long for her to be ac­cepted. “The old­est guys, the 60-year-olds, took me un­der their wing.” A decade later, there are only four other women in the cel­lar, but Sánchez chalks this up to the phys­i­cal na­ture of the work—and she hopes that her 7- and 10-year-old daugh­ters might one day boost the fe­male ranks. “It would be nice,” she says, “to have an­other gen­er­a­tion in the busi­ness.”

From top: Hams age in the Cinco Jo­tas bodega; a free-rang­ing black Ibe­rian pig.

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