See How Jamón Gets Made in the Heartland of Spanish Pork

Washington Post


April 16, 2024

In Jabugo, travelers can visit Ibérico pigs in the pasture and learn how to carve some of the world’s finest cured ham

By David Farley

ARACENA, Spain — “How do you like the ham?” asked Manolo Romero de la Ossa, the owner of Casas, a popular restaurant here in Andalusia.

All week long around the village of Jabugo, my wife and I had been eating jamón Ibérico de bellota, the sweet, nutty, salty and creamy product of black-hoofed, free-range pigs that consume a special diet.

“It’s great,” I said. Then I mentioned just how much ham we’d been eating.

“What does that matter?” Romero de la Ossa said, dismissing me with a wave of his hand. “You’re in the ham capital of Spain, even the world, and when it’s this good, you can’t stop. You eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

He was right. To mistake cured Spanish jamón (pronounced “hahm-ohn”) with the packaged, sliced ham you find at your local supermarket would be like comparing a fast-food burger to a wagyu steak, or Pabst Blue Ribbon with a Czech bottle of Pilsner Urquell. Even Italian prosciutto is not in the same league.

Jamón Ibérico de bellota is a whole other beast. For about three months out of the year, Iberian pigs graze on acorns (or bellotas in Spanish), giving the jamón a rich taste that some Spaniards have likened to a drug.

Jabugo is synonymous with the highest-quality jamón in Spain — and, some would argue, the world. I came here because my Spanish friends would whisper in irreverent tones when anyone uttered the phrase “jamón de Jabugo.” I felt like I was let in on some culinary secret: the best cured ham on the planet comes from a village of about 2,200 people nestled in the mountains of southern Spain.

Pasture tours and jamón museums

Is there such a thing as pork tourism? There is in Jabugo.

The town is so ham-centric that the main square is called Plaza del Jamón, and there is an array of bronze sculptures of jamón-cutters. There are also museums dedicated to Spanish jamón in Jabugo and Aracena.

Jabugo boasts a handful of jamón producers. The most famous is Cinco Jotas. The company offers several services for visitors to literally get their hands dirty and have their palates dazzled. I signed up for the full experience, including a visit to the oak tree-studded pastures to hang with the hogs, a tour of the 19th-century ham-curing cellars, a lesson in how to carve jamón like a pro, and, of course, a tasting.

It all gave me a much better insight into how much time and effort it takes to nurture an unparalleled product, and why it’s so expensive. A leg of black-label jamón Ibérico can cost as much as $1,700. Acorns are rich in fatty acids and nutrients. You could say they are a porcine superfood.

Spain has a handful of main jamón-producing regions, including Salamanca, Extremadura, the Los Pedroches Valley and Jabugo. But not all jamón Ibérico is created equal.

In 2014, the Spanish government created a color-coded system to inform consumers of the percentage of the pig’s Iberian ancestry. A white label, for example, means the breed of pig is at least 50 percent Iberian; it eats mostly fodder (a random mixture of grain, hay, and vegetables); and is not free range.

On the other end is black label, meaning the pig is 100 percent Iberian (or pata negra), it feeds from November to February on acorns, and is free range. There are also dozens of strict regulations about weight, size and the amount of free-range space the pigs should have, among other factors. Only 6 percent of the jamón Ibérico produced in Spain gets a black label designation.

Iberian pigs have fewer offspring than other breeds, produce less meat and take longer to mature. For those reasons, many ham producers in Spain crossbreed them. Cinco Jotas only uses 100 percent Iberian pigs, making it one of the few jamón-producing companies in Spain that gets the black label designation.

What makes jamón de Jabugo so special

People have been curing jamón in southwestern Spain for a very long time. Even the Romans recognized the area as particularly beneficial for the task of curing pork.

In A.D. 77 Roman writer Pliny the Elder wrote of Iberian pigs, “There is no animal that affords a greater variety to the palate of the epicure; all the others have their own peculiar flavour, but the flesh of the hog has nearly fifty different flavours.” On Christopher Columbus’s second voyage, in 1493, his ships were said to be loaded with Ibérico pigs as they crossed the Atlantic.

Until the late 19th century, ham production in Jabugo was small-scale, limited to a few small family-run slaughterhouses. It was only when a jamón-obsessed businessman, Rafael Sánchez Romero, recognized a growing demand for the high-quality ham from Jabugo that the product started to spread to cities like Seville and beyond. He started Cinco Jotas in 1879.

In 1994, jamón de Jabugo got DOP status — Denominación de Origen Protegida (literally “Protected Designation of Origin”) — a European Union certification that ensures a certain product comes from a specific geographic zone. The zone in question here extends beyond Jabugo to 30 other villages in the surrounding area where the ham produced is officially “jamón de Jabugo.”

“One of the most important factors in shaping the taste of jamón de Jabugo is the microclimate here,” said José Antonio Pavón, the Director General of DOP Jabugo, an the organization that maintains Jabugo’s DOP status. “We get 1,000 liters of rain here — that’s far more than any other ham-producing region in Spain.”

To add to that, something called the Foehn effect — a meteorological term for what happens when there’s a warm, dry condition on one side of a mountain and a cold, wet condition on the other, resulting in extreme temperature change — is caused by the wind from the Atlantic Ocean hitting the high-altitude mountains in Jabugo.

“The daytime temperature in summer can be at 105 degrees, and then at night it can go all the way down to 65 degrees,” said Maria Castro Bermúdez Coronel, the director of communications for Cinco Jotas. “This affects that taste, compared to other jamón-producing regions, in that the warm weather creates a strong flavor in the meat.”

The pigs are slaughtered — or “sacrificed” as Spaniards prefer to say — when they’re around 22 months old. Then the back legs (called “jamón”) and front legs (called “paleta,” or shoulder) sit in salt for a few weeks (one day per kilogram).

Next, they spend time in the drying process, hanging in a temperature-controlled room before being moved to a windowless cellar for a few years. The entire process can take up to five years before a leg of jamón is ready to be sliced and savored.

How to get your hands on jamón Ibérico

Look around your local supermarket — or pretty much any supermarket in the United States — and you likely will not find jamón Ibérico de bellota.

It’s not particularly hard to find jamón serrano, the most commonly produced jamón in Spain, which is good but does not possess the “wow” factor compared to black-label jamón Ibérico de bellota. If you want it, you have to go to a specialty food shop, buy it online or, like me, come to the source.

Antonio Cabrera, a sales manager at Covap, a jamón producer in Los Pedroches Valley near Córdoba, and the grandson of the company’s co-founder, said, “Italian culinary culture is so cemented in the United States, especially on the East Coast, that many people have a cultural attachment to prosciutto.”

Jamón Ibérico was approved for import by the U.S. government only in 2005, and its emergence in the United States — particularly the black-label variety — has been crawling at a Mediterranean pace. “We have some catching up to do,” he said.

If you’re in Spain and you want to bring back some black-label jamón Ibérico de bellota (or other pork products, Spanish or otherwise), you might want to think twice: It’s illegal.

However, there are plenty of ways to buy it online: You can go straight to the source at Cinco Jotas or visit the websites for Spanish gourmet websites for the U.S. market, including La Tienda, Campo Grande or Despaña.

For a 3-ounce packet of sliced black-label jamón Ibérico de bellota, expect to pay around $40. If you want to splurge and get your own leg, prices vary depending on the weight and if it’s the front leg or the heavier back leg.

Read full article…

Featured Products