The ancient, oak-studded pastures of western Spain – known as dehesa – cover an area roughly the size of Wales. They are home to bulls, reared for the corrida; to goats, sheep and cattle, for milk and meat; to bees and their prized forest honey; to cork oaks, wild mushrooms, charcoal makers and wild game.
And pigs. But not just any variety of pig: the aristocratic, pure-bred pata negra (black-hoofed) Iberian pig, prized for its richly flavoured, fat-flecked meat, especially when transformed into jamón Ibérico de bellota. In the words of chef and restaurateur José Pizarro, “It is the finest expression of ham in the world”.
“How the pigs grow, how they are looked after, the skill in the curing… it is a part of Spanish heritage,” he adds. Pizarro buys more than 550 pata negra hams each year for his three London restaurants.
Bellota means acorn: the very best hams are made from pigs that roam the dehesa freely, feeding on grasses, herbs, roots and chestnuts until the montanera – the fattening season, from October to January – during which they eat up to 10kg of acorns a day and increase their weight by about 60 per cent. The pigs’ favourite acorns come from the holm oak, Quercus ilex, and it is their acorn-based diet that gives their fat a low melting point, around room temperature: a key element in the sublime flavour of a great pata negra ham.
After slaughter, the hams are cured in salt for nine days or so, washed, then rested for at least a month. They are then dried for six to nine months, during which time the hams start to develop the aromas that characterise the finished product, before they enter the bodegas – curing cellars – where they will hang for up to three years.
Producers range from small family businesses, curing just a few hams each year, to big producers such as Cinco Jotas, founded in 1879. The company’s HQ in the town of Jabugo is perhaps the greatest cathedral in jamón Ibérico’s spiritual home. As you walk around the bodegas, the aroma from the thousands of hams strung from the rafters hits your nostrils like a rich, piggy wave. The hams from each season will hang here, undisturbed except by the occasional appearance of a white-coated maestro jamonero. He will check each ham by eye, palpate the fat with his hand, then slide a sharpened beef bone deep into its flesh, sniff it to check the cure and, if satisfied, move on.
Each of these precious hams is an artisanal masterpiece, and undeniably expensive: a whole black-label pata negra ham will cost at least £500 (if it doesn’t, be wary). For that, however, you have a share in a pig that had a hectare of dehesa to itself and gorged on the finest acorns. As Pizarro remarks: “You will never have eaten a pig that had such a happy life.”
You can purchase a whole pata negra by mail order, but much better to visit a specialist jamón supplier and try a few. Look for well-marbled, deep pink meat; the fat should be glossy, almost liquid at room temperature; the aroma should have faint herbal and floral notes; and the flavour should be sweet and nutty, lingering as long as a fine wine.
Only by trying a few different hams can you be sure which best suits your palate: some people like their pata negra to be delicate and only lightly salty, while others prefer an assertively “piggy” flavour. When tasting, allow the slice (which should be wafer-thin) to melt on your tongue, then savour the aromas that flood up through the back of your nose. “Just touch a slice,” says Pizarro, “and the fat will melt just with the heat of your fingers. Put it in your mouth and you will taste a slight saltiness, then sweetness, then a rich, complex nutty flavour.”
Should you be in Spain, head to family-run Corta y Cata in Seville, or Reserva Ibérica in Barcelona (they have a Hong Kong branch, too). Londoners should visit one of the three excellent Enrique Tomás outposts in the city for a glass of wine and a sample plate of jamón: find a ham you like and they will slice and vacuum-pack a leg for you. The same is true at Brindisa’s shop in Borough Market, where many hams can be sampled and the staff are especially knowledgeable.
The classic way to serve the best jamón, says José Pizarro, “is simple: if it’s in a packet, open it 30 minutes before you serve it, arrange the slices on a plate and let it get up to room temperature. Then all you need is a chilled bottle of fino.” It works very well with eggs: fried or scrambled, their richness amplifies the flavours of the ham on the palate.
And a whole ham makes a sensational centrepiece at a festive drinks party, but it might be wise to engage the services of a professional carver. The thin, flexible, foot-long, razor-sharp cuchillo jamonero is a formidable knife best wielded by an expert, and definitely not after a glass of sherry.