Hock of ages

Produced from pure-bred, acorn-fed pigs and aged for years, Spanish jamón ibérico is one of the world’s most costly delicacies. Paul Richardson goes in search of the gastronome’s Holy Grail: special-edition ‘vintage’ hams.

July 03 2010
Paul Richardson

It’s a familiar sight as you drive through western Spain: a forest of grey-green holm oaks stretching into the distance, with troops of black pigs rootling below them. The dehesa, as this man-made landscape is called, provides the black-foot or ibérico pig with its main form of sustenance – and the world’s gastronomes with one of the greatest of all edible delicacies. After years in the wilderness, the jamón ibérico de bellota (acorn-fed ham from the ibérico pig) is finally recognised for what it is: a national treasure, up there with Barcelona FC and Penélope Cruz. As anyone who has ever tried one will attest, the taste of a fine Spanish ham is incomparable in the wide world of charcuterie.

Now comes news of a novelty that will raise the bar even higher. Most jamónes ibéricos are aged for at least two years before reaching the market. But the best producers have always kept back a small number of hams for private consumption, and one or two of them have begun selling these – in tiny quantities and at a super price – with a label specifying their year of production. “Vintage” hams are as esteemed as rare caviars, as scarce as white truffles. But the most useful analogy is with fine wine. Like wine, an acorn-fed ham is the result of a given set of natural conditions – what the French call terroir. It is subjected to a long ageing process in dark, cool cellars. Its character varies subtly from year to year. And, as with wine, slow ageing confers value. While the price of a top-quality Spanish ham hovers around the £200 mark, the vintage model might set you back as much as £3,000.

One ham producer, Maldonado, in Extremadura, recently launched a super-premium line routinely described in the press as “the world’s most expensive ham”. At €1,500 apiece the Albarragena, aged for three years, is certainly pricy, but other jamónes are pricier: Sanchez Romero Carvajal’s 5J Jabugo ham retails at Harrods for around £1,600 a leg, and Harvey Nichols is selling Joselito’s Colección Premium at £3,000.

Maldonado sets great store both on the unhurried nature of its artisan process and on the racial purity of its ibérico pigs. Each of its vintage hams comes with a copy of a DNA test that claims to prove its unrivalled pedigree. While controversy has arisen from this claim, and some have questioned the relatively young age of this jamón ibérico, there is no denying its quality. The packaging hits all the right buttons, too: the ham comes wrapped in a gauze, then in a designer linen apron from Bel, the famous tailors in Barcelona. The poplar-wood box, which contains its own stand for the ham, has a sliding Perspex front, reinforcing the analogy with wine.

If Extremadura is the heartland of the ibérico pig, the town of Guijuelo, outside Salamanca, is a household name in Spain for ham production. At 1,000m above sea level, its climate is cold and dry, providing the ideal conditions for curing hams, chorizo, salchichón, lomo, and the other fine pork products. Here sits the headquarters of the country’s most prestigious ham producer and the pioneer of vintage jamón ibérico. Jamónes Joselito was founded a century ago by Eugenio Gómez; the current director, José Gómez, is his great-grandson. The ground-floor office boasts a chic glass, wood and chrome interior that could be a Madison Avenue ad agency, were it not for the persistent aroma that drifts in from the double doors at the back. Above the office are the drying rooms where 450,000 hams wait patiently in the chill of Guijuelo’s mountain air.

Joselito hams are produced from pure-breed ibérico pigs, which roam in a semi-wild state among the dehesas of western Spain, putting on as much as 40 per cent of their final body weight over the brief acorn season (December to March). The same could be said of any number of Spanish hams, but there is something about Joselito’s jamónes ibéricos that sets them apart from the rest. They are the ne plus ultra, the defining examples of the genre. Culinary critic and expert Rafael García Santos, whose annual gastronomic guide, Lo Mejor de la Gastronomía, is the Spanish foodie’s bible, rates Joselito’s Gran Reserva ham above all Spanish food products, awarding it 9.75 marks out of 10. The country’s top chefs fall over themselves to praise it to the skies: Ferran Adrià (whose menu degustación at El Bulli last summer featured abalone with Joselito panceta and canapé of Joselito ham with ginger among its 43 dishes) is on record as saying, “Joselito is my life.” In London, you can try it at Tapas Brindisa in Borough Market with a glass of pale Fino sherry, or buy it from Brindisa’s shop at £600 the whole ham or £20 for 100g.

Joselito raises 45,000 animals a year on 14 farms in the best dehesas of Extremadura, Castile, Andalucia and Portugal, from which 90,000 hams are the happy result. The high quality of this product is a confluence of various factors, most importantly the breed and age of the pig, its diet of grass and acorns, rich in natural triglycerides and monounsaturated fats, and the preparation and cure of the hams.

While Gran Reserva typically undergoes a 36-month cure, I am in Guijuelo to see and, if at all possible, taste a jamón ibérico that doubles this maturity. Every year Joselito keeps back 500 hams for additional ageing, and is now offering 55 hams from the 2005 vintage under the name Colección Premium. This venerable jamón has been cured for an extraordinary 68 months and was launched with great ceremony last October at Harvey Nichols (currently available to order at £3,000).

At José’s command, a worker in the company’s red overalls brings in the ham in its splendid presentation box by fashion designer Andres Sardá. The box, shaped like a grand piano on its side, clad in black and red leather and raw silk, with the ham on its own holder nestling within, exudes the glamour of an ultra-luxurious product.

There are limits to the concept of vintage where meat products are concerned. More than 10 years of ageing and the hams turn hard, difficult to cut, and their flavours become “aggressive”. So the early vintages are now a gastronomic memory. Gómez remembers the 2001 vintage as “exceptional”, the years 2003, 2005 and 2006 as “excellent”, and predicts his 2009 ham may be the equal of any of them when it is released in late 2012.

From the office Gómez leads me into the heart of the factory, where ibérico hams hang from the high ceilings in dense profusion, shiny black hooves crowning the glistening hocks, which shrink and wrinkle as they dry, growing a layer of natural moulds, which, it is said, mysteriously aid the maturing process. Uniquely among ham producers, Joselito sells all its products en primeur (another analogy with wine), storing purchased hams in controlled conditions until needed by the customer. The labels are a compendium of Spain’s finest restaurants: at a glance I see Akelare, Pedro Subijana’s three-Michelin-star restaurant in San Sebastián, José María in Segovia, and La Viña del Ensanche in Bilbao. (“My grandfather sold hams to his grandfather 80 years ago,” recalls Gómez.)

The floors are slippery with ham fat. Thin daylight creeps in through a high window along with a faint, cold breeze. The rich smell is so heady as to be almost intoxicating. In a far corner is the resting place of the rarest, oldest Joselito hams. An employee takes one down and Gómez rubs the grease off the label: it is dated 2003. The process behind this ham is both simple and highly developed. The animal in question, a pure-breed ibérico, must have spent at least two winters in the dehesa, gorging on as much as 15kg of acorns a day. It would have been slaughtered at two years of age, weighing between 160kg and 190kg. The hams spend less time in salt, an essential preliminary cure, than is usually the case. Their long sojourn in the mountain air does the rest, concentrating and honing their flavour.

Under the circumstances it seems too much to ask for a free sample of the 2003, but there are other ways of testing a ham. Gómez takes a stick-like implement made of bone (the cala) and plunges it into the fleshiest part of the ham. He sniffs it, much as one might try the “nose” of a vintage wine, then passes it to me. The aroma is penetrating, sweetly meaty, delicious in the extreme. When you cut into the ham, says Gómez, the colour is a dark purple-red, with tiny white spots of intramuscular fat, the un-fakable sign of an all-acorn diet.

The visit over, we repair to the tasting room in José’s opulent house (luxury hams are clearly a lucrative business). On a stand in the kitchen area is a Colección Premium ham, vintage 2005. My host picks up a long, thin, razor-sharp ham knife: it seems I’m in luck. Slicing in short, thin slices, he lays out a plateful and passes it over for tasting. The ham is rich and complex in flavour, with deep notes of nutty sweetness. The fat, ivory white in colour, is silky and unctuous. Meanwhile Gómez opens a bottle of vintage claret. The question of what to drink with a fine ibérico ham has exercised Spanish gourmets for years. Fino sherry goes well, as does any good red wine, perhaps a rioja or Ribera del Duero, or a vintage champagne (Gómez is partial to Dom Pérignon). Some people favour a white burgundy, or a cold beer.

Joselito hams are mainly sold on the domestic market, where they are most highly esteemed, but demand from abroad is increasing. In China, says Gómez, “the most powerful people in the country have one of our hams in their kitchen.” A Joselito ham was recently sold in Hong Kong at a retail price of US$5,000.

Of course, the price is steep, but compared to other super-luxury foods Gómez believes it offers good value for money. In many of its retail outlets the Colección Premium comes with an after-sales service: a professional cortador (ham-cutter) who comes to your home to help with the delicate business of slicing. And it goes further than you’d think. “A tin of caviar might cost you £6,000, but you’ll probably eat it in one sitting. For the same price you can buy two of these hams. That’s four-and-a-half kilos of meat on each one, average. And the whole family can enjoy it – even the children.”