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The story behind jamón ibérico de bellota

In the oak-filled pastures of western Spain, home to the black Iberian pig, a distinct combination of terrain and tradition helps to produce one of the most dazzling mouthfuls of meat anyone could hope to enjoy – jamón ibérico de bellota

The story behind jamón ibérico de bellota
Black Iberian pigs. Image: Christopher Kennedy

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The first thing you notice is the colour — a rich shade that, depending on the light, is somewhere between raspberry and the ruby shimmer of port. Then there’s that pearlescent ribbon of fat — and, oh, what fat it is, already melting to the touch as you pick it up and, in passing, admire the delicate slicing involved. And then it hits the tongue, and that’s when the fireworks start, from that umami fizz across the palate to the sweet nuttiness that fills the mouth.

Many foods are synonymous with a location. I can’t think of Singapore without yearning for chilli crab, Mumbai without wanting to stain my shirt with enthusiastic mouthfuls of keema pao, or California without hankering for an In-N-Out Burger.

No food, however, speaks as strongly of its origins as jamón ibérico de bellota. And no food makes me — and countless others, too — wax quite so lyrical about its appearance and flavour.

Jamón ibérico is inexorably tied to the land that produces it. This is partly because its Denominación de Origen status (Spain’s version of the EU’s protected designation of origin) is so fiercely guarded. It refers specifically to ham produced from pigs reared in the dehesa (an oak-filled pasture). But its connection to the land goes far deeper than mere legalities; deeper even than the acorn (bellota) that gives the ham its name, and its fat a creamy, nutty flavour.

“It’s almost anthropological,” says Monika Linton, founder of Brindisa, the UK-based Spanish food wholesaler that was largely responsible for introducing jamón ibérico to a mainstream audience in the UK, back in the 1990s. “You can see how everything is so interdependent — the weather, the farmers, the trees, the feed,” she adds.

Take the seasons. In summer, agile Iberian pigs — also known as black foot or pata negra  — roam the dehesa, covering up to 25 miles a day to find water. In the process, they’ll develop thin legs and strong thighs, a body shape that will support the substantial weight gain that takes place between October and February, a season known as the montanera. Meanwhile, the varied terrain forces the pigs to exercise, which helps the acorn oils infiltrate the meat. In short, the whole jamón ibérico story is a happy accident of location and circumstance.

The dehesa once covered almost 90% of Spain but is now restricted to just four regions: Guijuelo (Salamanca), Huelva and Les Pedroches (both Andalucia) and Extremadura. It’s to the latter I’ve come, to visit Señorío de Montanera, a cooperative of around 65 local producers (Brindisa’s main suppliers) to experience jamón ibérico, literally, field to fork. “It’s just the best possible ham,” explains Monika, “with farmers you can trust and a cycle you can see.”

We fly into Seville, arriving mid-afternoon, and drive in the direction of Portugal. It’s not long until we hit the edge of the dehesa in Extremadura. Although the sun is setting (darkness falls rapidly here), bit even in this light the countryside is stunning, and there’s something about it that reminds me of Britain — no doubt the rolling, oak-dotted hills that sprawl as far as the eye can see (and beyond, across the border, just a few miles away).

Things feel a lot less familiar once you arrive in the region’s main towns, however, particularly the key town of Badajoz — a beautiful, historic city dominated by Moorish and medieval architecture. Those who look for it will also find scattered evidence of its Roman past.

Badajoz’s chief attraction is its imposing eighth-century citadel, the Alcazaba. The largest of its kind in Spain, this walled fortress dominates the town and comes complete with towers and its own archaeological museum. But while it’s certainly impressive, right now my mind — or rather, my stomach — is focused on other things. And while there’s plenty of jamón in the shops and restaurants of Badajoz, if you’re looking for somewhere that really lives and breathes the stuff, you’re better off driving south east to the town of Zafra.

While Zafra wears its history — Roman and Moorish — handsomely, its main claims to fame are agricultural in nature. They include the annual Feria de San Miguel, a festival held every September. Dating back to the 14th century, this is essentially a livestock fair, but one of such international standing that it swells the town’s population from its usual number of about 20,000 to approximately one million people.

Perhaps more relevant to me is how Zafra celebrates the traditional, Catholic, pre-Lent, carnival season. While other cities call it Mardi Gras, Zafra takes the ‘Fat Tuesday’ thing somewhat more literally with the Bacanal de la Grasa (‘Bacchanal of Fat’), a celebration of all things jamón ibérico. And while I’m a little early for that official event, its spirit is evident all around the town.

Jamón ibérico de bellota

Jamón 100% ibérico de bellota. Image: Christopher Kennedy

Always read the label
So what exactly do we mean by jamón ibérico? There are four grades of ham, each of which is strictly controlled, recorded and marked. To receive the coveted black label marked ‘100% ibérico de bellota’, the pig must be pure-bred, have roamed free-range on the dehesa (with no more than two pigs per hectare) and been fed only on acorns during the montanera.

Next comes the red label, jamón ibérico de bellota. These pigs will have roamed free and eaten acorns but won’t be pure-bred Iberian. After that comes green — jamón ibérico cebo de campo, where the pigs are at least 50% Iberian and have been roaming free and grazing, but have also been given fodder. Finally, there’s the white label, jamón ibérico de cebo, for pigs that are at least 50% Iberian but have been enclosed and fed on fodder.

We arrive too early in the season to witness a matanza — the traditional method of slaughter — which is why, instead, I find myself at Señorío de Montanera’s production facility at around 7am, so I can witness the production of jamón ibérico de cebo from start to finish.

Inevitably, the process begins with the death of a pig. And, as you might imagine, there’s been a distinct sense of unease among the assembled visitors about this element. But it’s a vital part of the process, and I feel that if I want to keep eating jamón ibérico — which I do — I need to be privy to this moment.

By all accounts, the traditional method is more full-on than the mass-production method of execution I witness, but the latter seems — to me, at least — about as humane as such things can be. “Welfare is key,” explains Rafa Cruz, the manager of the facility.

“We don’t want adrenalin.” There’s a short shock, a swift cut, and the whole thing is over in a few seconds.

Thus begins a process that’s breathtakingly speedy — on a regular day, they can process an incredible 90 pigs — and neatly butcher around 40— every hour. But while the speed is impressive — and the butchery dazzling — thereafter, things slow down dramatically and the factory’s most-prized product won’t see the light of day for at least three years.

Rafa guides us through the subsequent stages. The legs, now trimmed of some fat — around two to three kilos, in fact — are sorted by weight, chilled to firm them up, salted in large containers and kept in the cámara de salazón (salting room) “for a day per kilogram”.

“A 15kg leg will be salted for 15 days; 10kg for 10 days. But ibérico de bellota gets an extra day because the extra fat needs extra time,” Rafa tells me.

The room is extremely humid. “Salt doesn’t penetrate the meat on its own. It’s the combination of salt and humidity, and the size of grain is also important,” Rafa explains. “Too fine, it just dissolves; too big, it just sinks. Every factory has its own grade of salt and level of humidity, and the salt has to come from the same sea.” Señorío de Montanera uses Atlantic salt. Why? Rafa laughs. “Because that’s what was used when we bought the factory! And if we change any parameter, we won’t know the effect for three years.”

After salting, the hams spend the next 90 days suspended in the cámara de post-salado (post-salting room), where they gradually cool down, removing the remaining moisture within and developing the natural mould that coats and protects each ham. After this stage, they’re aged for three years in the ‘bellota’ room, which smells wonderful — lightly gamey and nutty.

By my calculations, there must be around £7m of ham here. And there’s another two years’ stock in two other rooms, not to mention other charcuterie, such as chorizo, lomo and salchichón. In the case of jamón ibérico, then, time is most definitely money.

A stamp for making Jamon ibérico de bellota

A stamp for making ham. Image: Christopher Kennedy

Ibérico production makes up around 15% of the region’s agriculture, generating tens of millions of euros for the economy in Extremadura. But while the scale of production is distinctly modern, the methods used are historic. “We’re simply attempting to recreate what our ancestors did,” explains Rafa. “The challenge now is temperature and climate, which have changed.” He shrugs. “Spring is no longer spring, summer is no longer summer.”

The next morning, I rise early, along with fellow traveller Chris, to catch the sunrise over the dehesa. It’s breathtaking. We join the farm manager Cecilio Carrasco as the pigs emerge over the hill and herd around us, snuffling cheerfully and inquisitively. They’re chunky and hairy, and there’s something almost cartoon-like about them. What’s more, they’re far too easy to bond with, which is quite sobering having seen what’s in store for them further down the line.

We attempt to round them up for a photo. “Walk behind them, look hungry,” suggests Cecilio. As it turns out, we don’t need to resort to trickery, as the pigs are surprisingly cooperative. Then I learn that the dehesa has recently been experiencing a drought, which has resulted in the acorns being slow to mature and fall to the ground. If the pigs seem pleased to see us, it’s because, at present, humans mean food. This point is rammed home by Cecilio, who dutifully beats the acorns from the trees with a big stick, much to the delight of the swine below.

Cecilio believes Iberico pigs have a pretty good life. “They wake up at about 4am and wander around the dehesa eating,” he explains. “About noon, they have a break to sleep for an hour or two, then they get up, walk and eat some more. And when the daylight goes, they stop.”

The pigs are natrually going with instinct, bulking up for winter and in the process making themselves tastier. But however you look at it, they manage to add around 60-70kg during the average montanera. It’s a dedicated approach to eating that puts my own Christmas excesses in perspective. By the time we return to the farmhouse for breakfast, my appreciation for the industry — farmers, pigs, producers — is at a whole new level. My appreciation of jamón ibérico has also intensified. This is no longer simply a great product; this is a great product that sings of the dedication involved, of the history that created it and, particularly, of the glorious landscape that influences it so deeply.

Published in Issue 1 of National Geographic Traveller Food