While we are all still on a plant based diet kick right now, there is still room for meat that is ethically and responsibly sourced, traditionally made and totally delicious.
Away in the distance, under the hundreds of Spanish oak trees, large dark shapes are moving. An occasional grunt or squeal drifts our way and Antonio Hernández of the Dehasa ‘Los Pinos’ answers back with strange noises.
The black Iberian pigs prick up their ears, or they would if their ears weren’t so charmingly floppy, and a mob begins to move toward us.
Some casually saunter, as if not particularly bothered, while others adopt a cheerfully clumsy gallop. That’s because the call of the herdsman usually signifies there’s some extra food in the offing, and pigs as we all know, do like their scoff.
Ham of the Gods
Of all the delicious jamons in Spain, Jamón Ibérico de Bellota is undoubtedly the finest. It’s the cured meat of the rear leg and shoulder of black Iberian pigs like these who’ve been dining exclusively on free range acorns for the last four months.
This ‘montanera’ season lasts from November to February, a time when the pigs live freely outside under the oak trees in the ‘dehasa’, or oak orchard, happily snuffling up all the delicious (to them) bellotas as they fall.
Hearts of Oak
But if you’re thinking of putting some pigs in your back garden to make some cheap jamon, there are a few things to bear in mind. Firstly, these oak trees are different to ours – the acorns look the same, but the trees are much smaller and from a distance appear very similar to olive trees, both in shape and leaves.
Secondly not any old pig will do. The Cerdo Ibérico/Pata Negra, or black-hoofed Iberian pig, is very special. And, buyer beware, a black foot does necessarily mean it is an Iberian pig.
Pure-bred Iberian pigs are unique because they can store fat in their muscle, making their meat more oily than other pigs. This makes the meat extra delicious with literally melt-in-the-mouth properties.
‘Why are the acorns so important?’ I ask Asociación Interprofesional del Cerdo Ibérico (ASICI) Technical Director, Manuel Gonzalez, who’s gathering a sample bag of bellotas as the pigs gently surround us.
‘For the sweet taste they give to the meat,’ he explains, ‘and also because the oleic acid found in these acorns, similar to that found in olives, makes the meat especially tender. During the Montanera period an Iberian pig can easily eat up to 8 Kilos of acorns a day.’
By law there are just two pigs per hectare of dehasa and so the pig farmers can ensure the porkers all get their fair share of acorns, as well as lots of beautiful space to graze and socialise in. Large ponds dotted around give the pigs plenty to drink and somewhere for a bit of a wallow, too.
But with so much jamon on the market, and often confusingly so, how does the jamon connoisseur know what he or she is getting for sure?
The science of jamon
That question was first answered for me at the ASICI Laboratories where, in ultra-modern surroundings and with state of the art equipment, I met dedicated jamon scientists. Yes that job exists, why am I only finding out now?
Here they regularly analyse the quality of the acorn samples, as well as the final jamon, to refine the product and protect the consumer.
The production of jamon has always been strictly regulated to avoid fraud, but in 2014 a classification system arrived to make things even simpler for the end buyer.
Know your jamon
I’m shown the plastic tags that are attached to the legs and shoulders at the start of their curing journey, and which must legally remain fixed all the way to the consumer.
These tags are a clear guide to quality and taste, as well as a reassurance of ASICI’s high standards of food safety, animal welfare, traceability and sustainability.
Black label is the very best, it means they are ‘’montanera’ – totally acorn-fed pigs – Jamón de Bellota – from 100% Iberian mothers and fathers.
After that comes the Red label signifying free-range, acorn-eating, pigs but with only one Iberian parent.
Green means pigs with one Iberian parent who have lived free-range in fields, but not eaten only acorns.
And finally, there is White label – Iberian pigs with a single Iberian parent who’ve been kept in a pen and eaten mostly feed and cereals.
Looking for a cure
But of course there is more to creating the perfect jamon than breed and diet, there is the whole ancient curing process too. This has, of course, been modernised to meet demand, as I found out at my next stop Estirpe Negra, well-known as one of the very finest jamon producers in Spain.
Modernised but not compromised; technology has helped producers like Estirpe Negra make jamon in larger quantity, and removed much of the back-breaking work involved in lugging the legs around, but the traditional method remains the same.
Salt and time
The legs (jamones) and shoulders (paletas) are chilled down overnight, then hand covered in sea salt and left to rest – a day for each kilo they weigh.
After that, they’re washed and hung in racks to dry in mind-boggling quantities in enormous temperature and humidity controlled spaces for up to three months.
Here they begin to develop their character, a benign surface flora, and change colour. They’re aided in this process by being occasionally exposed to the fresh air of the region, but only when computer says ‘yes’ it’s time to open the windows.
Finally, the racks are moved, via massive overhead railways, to the basement to mature. This last process can take three years, usually much longer.
Then only when the DO Inspector has stuck his sharpened beef bone into the glistening cured leg, sniffed it, and pronounced himself happy, is the jamon passed fit to go to the shops.
Tasting the jamon
We sat down in the tasting room for a proper jamon banquet. Experts carved exactly the same size wafer thin slices and arranged them in beautiful circles on plates for us to try.
Jamon must be served at room temperature, never from the fridge, the fat should be sweating slightly. So was I actually, in anticipation.
And it is that marbled, yellowish, fat which is the main prize. As it hits your lips it begins to dissolve in your body heat and that incredible flavour fills your mouth.
When you have properly savoured that, it’s time to bite on the red jamon itself to experience its slight chewiness and the release of salt.
A fantastic combination that needs only a piece of bread and a glass of wine to partner it perfectly. As a meal starter or a tapa, it is sublime.
Trying all the colour grades of jamon, it was soon clear that the classification system is very accurate.
White label is okay, it is after all the cheapest, but as you approach the pinnacle of jamon, the black label, the taste is quite fantastic. I have eaten jamon for years and years, but I don’t think I have ever eaten anything anywhere near as good as this.
An hour later, slightly greasy and clutching a vac-pack of ready sliced Black label jamon for the flight home, I was ready to head down to Seville and an evening of genuine, traditional, Flamenco.
The passion of the dancers that night was remarkable and genuine. Just like the jamon producers, they believe in the ancient rules of their art with no compromises.
It’s taken centuries to create the finest jamon, it takes a few seconds to savour.
This is the Chinese Year of The Pig, so why not make it a year you seek out only the best jamon?
Jamon up yourself
Jamon travels well, you don’t have to buy a whole leg (around €340 for the best) but instead can buy it ready sliced in vacuum packs online.
Discover more of the passion at www.hampassiontour.eu and dates when the #hampassion roadshow is coming to your part of the UK this year.
I went to Spain as a guest of the ASICI and #hampassion