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Written by Urban Nilmander, Photos by Carin Tegner
For millions of Spaniards, gourmet chefs in Spain, Paris, Chicago and New York, there´s no doubt: Spanish cured ham in general and the ham from Jabugo in Andalucia in particular, made from happy, black pigs bred on only acorns and grass, is the best in the world.
A sweet, nutty smell from hanging ham wafts over the streets in Jabugo. While 20 or more shops on the main street in Jabugo say they sell the best ham, there is actually a whole range of Jamón Ibérico available. Only a few are the real deal. True aficionados can easily smell and feel the true thing. For anybody else, prices tell all. Real Jámon Ibérico is getting closer to Russian caviar or truffles in price and exclusivity. In some shops the price per kg for an air-dried leg is close to 100 Euros ($130).
When my photographer and I visit in April it´s slow in Jabugo. Only a few tourists stroll around and look at the hams hanging in the shop windows. In December, it’s a different story. “I´m not sure how many thousand visitors from the whole of Spain that visits Jabugo around Christmas but by then it´s impossible to park your car in town and every bar and restaurant are filled with people”, says Javier Fernández, production manager at Sánchez Romero Carjaval, the biggest and most famous of the Jabugo ham producers.
Every year more than 100,000 black pigs are butchered in the Sánchez Romero Carjaval factory. But, the entrance to the factory tells nothing about what´s going on inside. Beautiful white colonnades surround a lush, green garden with huge rustic, beautifully decorated, wooden doors scattered around the building. The only sound comes from singing birds.
Once inside, we are hit with a high volume mixture of passing trucks, loud voices, packing and cutting machines. Through the noise, Javier Fernández shouts out what makes Jámon Ibérico the best and probably the most expensive ham in the world. “Everything that has to do with this pig has to be authentic. We use ten or sometimes more specially trained inspectors that travel around and check out the farmers, take samples and do tests continually to make sure that the pigs are treated well. We also make sure that the special race we use is not mixed. After the butchering, almost everything (in terms of production) is done by hand and all that put together of course increases the prices,” says Javier Fernández.
The special race he is talking about is an almost black pig with long, hanging ears that has been roaming around the nearby mountains for thousands of years. The wet, never ending green oak forests that start in Huelva and continues up through Extremadura have been a perfect environment for this particular pig. Hot summers and wet, cool winters have also been very good for air-drying hams.
During the period that is called the Montanero, from September to April, the forests are filled with thousands of these black pigs roaming around eating acorns that have fallen from the trees. From May and on through the hot summer when there are no acorns, the remaining pigs are kept on a diet to make them really hungry for the winter season. The pigs run free and live for about one and a half years until they reach about 170 kg. Then, they are butchered, and the brining and air-drying process of the hams takes another three years.
“There are companies that have started to feed the pigs on other things than acorns and have mixed the original race with other races. In that way the time of production is of course shorter and the ham cheaper, but the authenticity is also gone”, says Javier Fernández.
The famous ham Fernández’s company produces has the long brand name Jámon Ibérico de Jabugo Cinco Jotas, a name that suggests that there are five different quality levels. That´s not true anymore. “Many years ago we produced Tres and Quattro Jotas which was pigs partially fed on fodder, but today we only have Cinco Jotas, pigs only fed on acorns,” says Javier Fernández.
Earlier in the day we visited Los Felisos, one of the breeding farms in the area of Sierra Aracena, a farm managed by Dolores Gandullo and her son Pablo, who send for 30 of their black pigs by shouting. A group of curious pigs gather around us, take a swim in a muddy swimming pool, root a little in the soil, and shortly become bored and slowly return to the nearby forest.
“Last year was not good. We had a bad drought and the oaks didn´t get as much acorns as they usually do. And thus we couldn’t have so many pigs. But the coming winter is going to be very good, I can see it on the flowers on the trees”, says Pablo Gandullo.
The pigs still root around in the soil looking for hidden acorns, but this time of year their basic diet is grass and cereal. Just as in Italy and France where pigs root for truffles, the Spanish pigs also once rooted for a funky fungus. “Years ago there was a mushroom growing on the roots of the oak trees called the gorumelo, which was very tasty. But we haven´t seen that mushroom for a while now,” says Dolores Gandullo.
Returning to the factory we walk through all the stages of ham-production with Fernández. From the processing of other pig cuts into tasty sausages to the first stages of fine cutting where ten men in green outfits cut unnecessary fat off hams with a famous V-cut, the process is riveting. After the fine cutting, the ham leg is transported to a huge room filled with sea salt and cured for about ten days.
“I tell people that what we do with the pig here is totally ecological. The pig lives free his whole life, we are very cautious when the pig is butchered- a scared pig gives bad meat- and we only use sea salt and air-drying for the rest of the production,” says Javier Fernández.
In other words, these are happy pigs. And they are healthy too. Studies from Spanish universities have shown that the pure Jámon Ibérico contains half of the monounsaturated fat found in olive oil. And though the pig is cured in salt for ten days the quantity of salt in the final ham is very low. “What happens is that the leg slowly loses its fat when it is hung in room temperature for such a long time. You could say it melts away like a vegetable fat. Jámon Ibérico stimulates good cholesterol,” says Javier Fernández.
As we continue on our tour, we finally reach the gold mine, the curing room. Endless rows of desirable hams sporting a green surface mold that imparts the ham’s special taste hang above us. Light is kept at a minimum and the intake of outside air is strictly controlled in this room. Just one row in this facility consists of 40, 000 hams. As with fine wines, the hams are continuously monitored. Specially trained maestro jamoneros take samples from three different spots on the ham to make sure that the leg is of high quality.
The ham is so good, I wonder why Spanish Jámon Serrano and Ibérico haven´t conquered the world and knocked Parma and other hams down the list of great hams. There are a lot of explanations, including old traditions, long international isolation, a huge internal market and, until recent years, a not very developed interest in international marketing (Spanish olive oils have a similar problem as the ham. Though they are very high quality, they are hard to find outside Spain). Though the ham-giant Sánchez Romero Carjaval is part of the big Sherry-company Osborne which has an international marketing department, only 5% of their products are exported.
“It´s partially a question of sanitary laws in Spain that do not correspond to other countries. But I think the determining fact is that for example the Italians in general are better in international business and marketing. Italian products, olive oil, hams, wines are known all over the world even if we make as good products in Spain,” says Javier Fernández.
Standing in the forest of cured ham, Javier Fernández finally shows us the best hams, what we ordinary ham eaters might call Pata Negra. This name is in fact only partially right. “We don´t like the name Pata Negra. There are many pig races that are black or have black feet without being fed on acorns. To be sure it´s the real Jámon Ibérico you have to look at the foot and at the shape of the leg. The foot is smaller on the real one and a Jámon Ibérico shall look like a violin in shape, not like a guitar,” says Javier Fernández.
Upstairs at the company restaurant Meson Cinco Jotas it’s time to taste the much dicussed ham. Rafael Perez, cortador, educated cutter of ham, puts the leg in the jamonero and cuts some really thin pieces of an almost purple ham with a distinguishing yellow fat in the middle.
The pieces are placed on a lukewarm, white plate, and they are so thin, you can look right through them. One bite of the stuff, and we know, Jámon Ibérico is not comparable to any other ham. Parma, Bayonne or other hams fade away, and the taste and the consistency are beyond description.
Jámon Serranois the name for all salted and cured ham produced in Spain.
Jámon Ibérico is ham that comes from a special race of pigs called Ibérico, only fed on acorns and grass. There are second-level brand names like recebo or de pienso, which means the pigs have been bred on a mix of acorns and fodder or just fodder. The two most famous producers of the real Ibérico are Sánchez Romero Carjaval in Jabugo and Joselito from Guijelo, close to Salamanca. The whole area around Jabugo in northern Huelva is filled with ham producers as are parts of neighbouring Extremadura.
Every year 4.5 million Ibérico-pigs are produced but only ten per cent are Bellota, pigs that are only bred on acorns and grass.
The ultimate guide to Spanish ham is La Guia del Buen Jámon which lists 325 different ham producers