The journey begins with a big white plate, overlain with slices of ham so thin they are almost translucent, their dark scarlet streaked and marbled with ivory. The first sight and taste of a top-quality acorn-fed ibérico ham are not things to be readily forgotten. What sets it apart from rivals is the subtlety of its balance of salt and fruity sweetness, the melting tenderness of the meat and its reverberant aftertaste, plus an extra something, an intense umami savouriness.
I am in a bar in a town in Extremadura, about as far as you can get off the tourist trail. My guide is Miguel Ullibarri of A Taste of Spain, a travel company specialising in bespoke tours of Spanish gastronomic destinations. Ullibarri says interest in Spanish food-travel is moving out of its traditional bastions in Barcelona, Madrid and San Sebastián and into the rich hunting-grounds of Andalucía, following “routes” through the worlds of olive oil, wine, and now ham.
Ullibarri has just ordered a ración of three-year-old ibérico and two big glasses of red wine, and is giving me the lowdown on the high points of our three-day tour. We have started in Zafra, a country town with a strong flavour of the Spanish south in its whitewashed houses, columned galleries, and cobbled squares planted with palm trees. From here we will plunge into the wide uncluttered landscapes of southern Extremadura as it shades into northern Andalucía, taking in ham-themed towns such as Jerez de los Caballeros and Fregenal de la Sierra. Then we’ll be heading south towards the undisputed capital of ibérico ham – the mountains of Aracena, an hour outside Seville. Here Ullibarri has arranged visits to ham-curing sheds and ham museums, trips to specialist restaurants and tapas bars, and something very special to wind up the trip: a traditional matanza, the Spanish domestic pig slaughter, on a family farm in the heart of the dehesa. Roughly translating as pastureland, the dehesa is a sprawling area of forest that covers more than 3m hectares of western Spain and eastern Portugal. It is a complex, partly man-made ecosystem whose twin pillars are the holm oak and the ibérico pig, principal consumer of the oak’s highly nutritious acorns.
We leave Zafra on the EX-101 towards Portugal, a back road winding through deep dehesa criss-crossed with dry stone walls, the rolling hills occasionally crowned by a story-book castle or the white splash of a village. Outside Burguillos I have my first sight of gangs of pigs rootling among the oaks at the side of the road. They are charcoal grey, surprisingly hairless, with floppy ears and a fineness of leg that contrasts with their rotund bellies. In spring and summer, the pigs are fed sparingly on maize and wheat but when the acorns fall in late autumn, the animals are let loose into the dehesa to embark on a pig-out of massive proportions known as the montanera. They gorge on up to 10kg of acorns a day and acquire as much as 50 per cent of their final body weight during the last two or three months of their happy lives.
Augusto Lahore, of ham producers Lazo in the village of Cortegana, at 700m above sea level in the Sierra de Aracena, takes up the story as we walk the fragrant corridors of a factory where thousands of fine jamones ibéricos hang on ropes in the mountain air. The pigs are slaughtered from January until the season winds up with the onset of spring. The fresh hams are first salted, removed to a drying loft where they are encouraged to “sweat” in the brief sierra summer, then taken down to the dark bodega for a long, slow cure lasting at least two years. Speckled with natural moulds, the hams have the look of lichen-encrusted rocks, or the trunks of those oaks in the dehesa from which they came. We meet Esteban, an employee in green overalls, who delicately carves a ham for one of Lazo’s pre-sliced vacuum-packs. Esteban offers me a slice as a luxurious mid-morning snack, pointing out the spots of white within the grain of the ham: crystallised concentrations of oleic acid and an unfakable sign of the genuine acorn-fed article.
Fifteen years ago, such hams were little known outside Spain. As the product has come to be appreciated worldwide as a luxury on a level with foie gras and caviar, so the interest in its background has grown. A Taste of Spain’s ibérico tour aims to furnish visitors with an insight both into the workings of the dehesa and the artisan process behind its most prestigious product: from pig, as it were, to plate.
The company tailors tours to the client’s needs, tastes, and gastro-expertise. In terms of lodging it can call on the pick of the local bunch. Rocamador, a former convent on a hill like an island in an ocean of dehesa, is one of Extremadura’s most famous luxury hotels, and Convento de la Parra is a pioneer of monastic chic, while the Conde de la Corte in Zafra is one of the prettiest town-house hotels in Spain. Higher-end options on the Andalucían leg of the trip might include Finca Buenvino outside Aracena, where for many years Sam and Jeannie Chesterton have offered the best in Spanish and English rural comforts. For those wanting to roll up their sleeves and get right into the dehesa action, A Taste of Spain recommends farmhouse stays at places such as Finca Montefrío, an 82ha farm run by Armando Escaño and Lola López that is one of Spain’s few producers of organic jamón ibérico.
As we roll up at Montefrío, López is busy with a batch of lard, filling bottles with a pale gold liquid that will soon turn pearly white in the chilly air. Lunch, prepared by Escaño, will be pork sirloin, kidneys and panceta from the family’s own pigs, grilled over holm-oak coals in the open air. Fresh cuts of ibérico meat have increasingly become a staple of Spanish restaurant menus and it’s not hard to see why. It has a density of flavour that compares with beef or lamb, at several removes from the blandness of commercial “white” pork.
Early next morning, Armando takes us out into the dehesa. The first sunlight brings up the brilliant green of winter pasture and reveals a carpet of fresh-fallen acorns. Luis, the farm hand, calls the herd over and the pigs trot heavily into view, crunching on acorns as they come, the sun catching the steam rising from their dun grey bodies. The silence is broken only by birdsong and the quietly snuffling animals. Luis tells me his charges feed on whatever the dehesa provides and they can find – grass, insects, roots, even snakes – but are fondest of bellotas (acorns). They are connoisseurs, he says, of the trees with the sweetest acorns, spitting out the shells discreetly from the sides of their mouths.
Pig-keeping and pork cookery occupy a deep seam of Spanish culture and lore, and nowhere is this heritage more impressively displayed than in the ritual of the matanza. Time was when the annual winter pork-fest formed a cornerstone of Spanish country life. Even 20 years ago every family in Aracena kept a pig and held matanzas in the village streets. The custom is now rarer than ever but farming families such as Armando’s have continued to observe it year in, year out. That afternoon they were dispatching two ibérico pigs on Armando’s brother’s farm outside Cortegana, and I was to be a guest at an atavistic fiesta that rarely welcomes onlookers unless their credentials have been previously approved.
The family convene at a stone shack amid the dehesa, gathering nervously around the door with ropes, hooks, and a solid table at the ready. When the pig-killer arrives, I recognise Esteban from the ham factory, for whose skill with a big knife I could happily vouch.
The matanza is a universe of traditional wisdom that the outsider can only look upon, admire, and marvel at its persistence in the 21st century. Its central act is bloody, but mercifully brief, and carried out in an atmosphere of respectful efficiency backed up by centuries of tradition. I watch in awe as the animals become corpses and begin their long day’s journey into edibility. Impressions catch on my senses like burrs on a sweater: the acrid smell of burning hair, the amazing architecture of a pig’s interior, the sight of intestines trailing in long pink skeins, to be washed by the women (and it is always the women) in the stream at the bottom of the valley.
There is plenty of hard work to do, the light is fading, and a freezing mist is swirling around the holm oaks. But the grisly first phase of the matanza soon gives way to the first waves of food and drink: shot glasses of firewater to keep out the cold, plates of green olives, and rashers of panceta crisped over the fire. Then Armando’s brother brings out one he made earlier: a ham from another matanza that has been hanging in his cellar for the past three years. My Spanish pork safari ends as it began, with a generous serving of a delicacy as unique and irreplaceable as the landscape that engendered it: acorn-fed, long-cured jamón ibérico, sliced to perfection on a big white plate.
Paul Richardson was a guest of A Taste of Spain (www.atasteofspain.com). Its four-day trip, ‘Iberico Ham – the secret unveiled’, costs €2,160 per person for a group of two, falling to €1,550 per person for four
Paul Richardson is author of ‘A Late Dinner: Discovering the Food of Spain’ (Bloomsbury)