Ibérico Ham School – Day 1
Sometimes things work out much better than you’d hoped. Having driven for miles through areas of both Portugal and Spain that are home to the famous black Iberian pig, I wondered if we would ever get a glimpse of these wonderful animals. I’ve dreamed of someday owning an Iberian pig farm in Andalucía and really wanted to experience them in their natural habitat. Alas, they proved elusive.
A Google search turned up a Museum de Jamón in a small town called Aracena in Huelva province, which is in the south-west corner of Andalucía. Huelva is one of five “DO” (Denominacion de Origen – a stamp of regional authenticity) available for Ibérico Jamón. The museum, I thought, might provide information on how I might visit a pig farm.
As we got close to Aracena and certain that we were now, truly, in pig country, we scoured the oak groves, my husband and I competing to see who’d be the first to spot a pig. Once or twice I thought I’d found one, but they turned out to be large stones.
We arrived at the museum and were provided with English translations of the displays before being shown a short film (in English) about the pigs, their habitat and the Huelva region. I was just struggling through my wall-to-pamphlet translations when an English-speaking couple arrived with what was clearly a Jamón expert, talking them through the displays in great detail. At first I thought the guide might be with the museum and was considering asking if I could join them. However, I could tell from their conversation that this was a private tour, so I did the only thing I could – I eavesdropped! I thought I was being subtle until the guide, Angel, asked me if I would like to join them. My delight overcame my embarrassment and I literally jumped at the opportunity.
Jamón Ibérico comes only from free-range Iberian pigs from designated areas of Spain. (A similar product is produced in Portugal, where it is called “Presunto Ibérico”.) The best quality meat comes from pigs that feed almost exclusively on acorns for the last 4-6 months of their lives. The ham from these pigs is called “Jamón de Bellota”, “bellota” being the Spanish word for “acorns”. It is the acorns that give the meat its wonderful, oily consistency and deep flavour. The oil in the meat is very low in cholesterol and has been proven to be heart-healthy when consumed in appropriate quantities.
The next classification is “Jamón de Recebo”, where the pigs are fed on a mix of acorns and cereals for their last few months. A third classification, “Jamón de Cebo”, or simply “Jamón Ibérico”, comes from pigs that are fed only on cereals. The classification also reflects the number of months the ham is aged – 36 months for “Bellota”, 24 for “Recebo” and 18 months for “Cebo”. Jamón from the Huelva region uses a further (and rather complicated) quality classification, with “Jamón de Bellota” divided into “Summum” and “Excellens”, “Summum” being the better of the two.
It turned out that Angel ran a guesthouse in the region and had put together a three-day “Jamón Ibérico” package covering the museum visit, tapas tasting, carving lesson (combined with sherry tasting, with sherry being the perfect tipple to compliment Jamón), pig farm visit, butcher/abattoir visit and cookery lesson. This was combined with a stay at their fully ecological guesthouse, where Angel’s wife, Lucy, cooked wonderful, home-style Andalucían food using exclusively local, and primarily organic, ingredients. To my delight, Angel offered to let us join the tour for the evening’s carving lesson followed by gourmet meal and for tomorrow’s farm visit.
Carving Jamón is not as easy as it looks. To fully appreciate the flavour, very fine slices of about two inches in length are required. With top-quality Jamón, the opaque fat will become translucent when it comes in contact with the warmth of your skin, which can be demonstrated by laying a thin slice on the back of your hand. To taste, the slice should be pressed, intact, to your palate with your tongue. Then simply breathe in deeply through the nose and the wonderful flavour of Jamón can be discerned. Only then should you chew, and perhaps follow with a sip of chilled Fino or Manzanilla sherry, the perfect accompaniment to Jamón.
We each took our turn at carving, with some attempts being better than others. The plate soon filled up with slices of the delectable meat, which was passed around for all to savour. After the carving lesson we enjoyed a wonderful three-course meal prepared by Lucy – a cold beetroot soup to start, followed by organic Ibérico pork served with a rich walnut sauce and finishing with a light but luxurious chocolate mousse. The meal was accompanied by a delicious local, organic red wine.
Both Arūnas and I were very excited about the farm visit the next day. We toddled back to our van (the sherry and vino taking its toll) and slept soundly, truly exhausted after a full and very interesting day.
For Part 2 of the story, please click here.
NB: This post is not sponsored in any way. We paid for all aspects of the tour. We simply had a marvellous experience.