December 14 2011
A couple of weeks ago, I was tramping through the dehesa meadows of the Sierra Morena in deepest Andalucia, watching ripe acorns tumble from the branches of holm oaks to be gorged by a hungry horde of black pigs. They make a curious sight, these Iberians pigs; although promisingly rotund, their slender legs and tilted hooves give them a Jimmy Choo-like gait. A quote from the 19th-century philosopher JS Mill kept tripping into mind: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” I wasn’t so sure. It looked like the life of Riley to me; their pens were immaculate, and their cheerful owners clearly concerned for their wellbeing. José Cano, the farmer, even told me that each pig had a hectare of land to him or herself to graze on, so they are hardly cramped.
But there was a hidden agenda and an excellent reason for all this pampering: their porcine lives were to end abruptly three months later when they had reached their optimum weight (a munificent minimum of 170kg), cranked up by those acorns, or bellotas. The end product was to be that most exquisite of hams, known variously as jamón de bellota, jamón Ibérico, or pata negra (black leg). Even the Italians are now swapping Parma for Ibérico. I have long been an addict of its velvety, moist texture – and the fact that, for once, you are actually supposed to eat the fat. This is said to be rich in oleic acid, good for cholesterol and bizarrely the same that is found in olives, so giving rise to the Spanish epithet of “olives on legs”.
Los Pedroches, the valley I was exploring north of Córdoba, is Spain’s fourth and most recent area to gain the much coveted denominación de origen classification for Iberian ham, following on from the best-sellers of Guijuelo (Salamanca), Jabugo (Huelva) and Extremadura. As it’s an upstart, not many people know the name, but I can assure you it is worth retaining, on a par with Guijuelo, where the famed Joselito brand is produced. In fact a recent blind tasting by Spanish ham experts actually pronounced Los Pedroches number one.
Later, at Ibesa, one of two agricultural co-operatives of Los Pedroches, I threaded my way through a dark underground labyrinth of some 16,000 suspended legs air-drying for a mandatory two to three years. It was mind-boggling. Then upstairs came the degustación I had been salivating for, of cured salchichón, lomo, chorizo and, of course, jamón. The chunky slices freshly shaved off a back leg (for aficionados, this is the superior limb) were tender, delicately flavoured, slightly sweet with generous, unctuous fat. This was organic dehesa heaven, the pure joy of jamón, making me a distinctly satisfied human being. Sorry, Mr Mill.
A guided visit to Los Pedroches pig farm & to Ibesa co-op (curing factory) costs €50 (up to five people).