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OTHER ITA SITES:
Hamtastic: Spanish Ham
There’s more to Jamón Ibérico than meets the eye. Those waxy haunches that hang above every other bar, from Bilbao to Benalmadena, are not just any old hams. There is a story behind them - an encyclopaedic body of knowledge, a raft of rules and regulations and a plethora of skills and crafts. The “transcendentally superlative” (according to Ford, of whom more below) Spanish Hams stand some comparison with fine wines - for the strict demarcation of their areas, for the rigorous methods of production, the fastidious denomination and classification, the quality controls, the testing and the tasting. Jamón is quintessentially Spanish, the product of a unique pig on a very special diet. It comes from defined areas in the southwest of Spain , notably the Provinces of Badajoz and Cáceres in Extremadura, and the Province of Huelva in Andalucía.
The word dehesa, according to my dictionary, means pasture or meadow. In reality it means something more poetic. It is that rolling country of rich winter grasses and wild flowers, through which rounded boulders sometimes swell, and across whose expanse the dwarf oak thrives, dispersed at seemingly regulated intervals. The dehesas of southwest Spain – nearly a million hectares of them - present a pastoral, almost park-like prospect, sylvan and welcoming, an appropriate home for the aristocrat of the hog world, the Iberian pig. These black and bristly descendants of the Iberian boar enjoy an enviable early life, rooting and wallowing on the open dehesas for a year or more, before their appointment with the slaughterman.
Pigs have forever been important in these parts, even residing in the homes of the farmers in days gone by. In the early 1830’s the travel writer, Richard Ford, recorded: “They return from the woods at night, of their own accord, and without a swine’s general. On entering the hamlet, all set off at a full gallop, like a legion possessed with devils, in a handicap for home, into which each single pig turns, never making a mistake. We have more than once been caught in one of these pig-deluges, and nearly carried away horse and all..”
The authorities of Extremadura have recognised the touristic, as well as the epicurean and commercial importance of ham to their area, and designated a “Route of Ham”, for the ham gastronome and the porcine enthusiast alike. It was visiting one of the towns on the route, Jerez de los Caballeros, that we met Julio, the technical director of Dehesa de Extremadura, the main governing body for Jamón. In this town of time-worn stone, the cradle of many stubbly conquistadors, we talked pig and we talked ham, and we talked, briefly, about the transition of the one to the other.
This middle bit I will gloss over, because I’m squeamish, but of the pig in the field and the ham on the plate, I am endlessly enthusiastic. To witness the former we piled into a car along with a registered vet called Fernando and headed for a nearby farm, bumping along a drive and going through a gate to arrive into the middle of a real dehesa. The dusky porkers flocked around us in a ‘pig-deluge’, grunting contentedly while raising moist snouts to the car, quivering with curiosity. Why do they do that? I wondered.
“maybe they are glad to see us?”, Fernando tried. It was not so much a joke as a case of mistaken identity. Because, he continued, “They perhaps confuse us with the vareadores”. This word was a new one on me, and it referred to the herdsman who is armed with a long stick with a rope attached to the end. With this simple implement, the vareadore shakes, agitates and whips at the upper branches of the oak, causing bellotas, or acorns to fall to the ground. The pigs go for them like truffle hounds, each consuming eight to ten kilos a day from late October through to March when they pile-on some 60 percent to their body weight. Lush dehesa grasses and rhizomes are on the menu, too. Ford reckoned that the Duke of Arcos also fed snakes to his hogs, but it’s the acorns that the pigs love above all else. First the fruit of the gall oak, later that of the ilex and, later in the season, that of the cork oak. These latter produce the biggest acorns and Julio picked up a handful to show us. They were each as big as my thumb and as shiny as polished mahogany.
After a short but apparently happy life the porkers are converted (I try not to think about this too much…) into their constituent cuts of meat, of which the selected hind legs are known as jamones and the smaller forelegs as paletas. The curing process takes place at low temperatures and it is for this reason that the famous ham towns of Spain are all up in the hills, where cold winters may be relied upon – places like Montanchez, Calera de Leon and Jerez in Extremadura; Jabugo in Andalucía. Each of the ham towns has a curing plant or two on its fringes, where the freshly-quartered limbs are packed in salt and left for approximately one day per kilo of its weight. They are removed and washed in fresh water before transferring to a drying room, where they are hung for 35-60 days at a temperature between 3-6 degrees centigrade. Next they spend 6-18 months maturing and curing in a warmer bodega. Throughout, temperature, ventilation and relative humidity are closely controlled. In the later phases, hams are tested for firmness, and a pointed ox-bone is occasionally inserted and withdrawn to be subjected to olfactory testing by the controller. He has the practised sense of smell of wine-taster and will award each ham its deserved title. From here the hams will usually spend some time resting in a bar before being served as raciones or tapas. Or they may be wrapped whole in coloured paper and given away for Christmas.
Hams make a popular and very welcome gift in Spanish households. They are also the subject of numerous concursos or competitions, both for the qualities of the hams themselves and for the skills of the curing managers. The slicers, too, get their chance of fleeting celebrity. Invariably men and dressed in regulation waistcoat and bow tie, they line up for the cameras and the judges, a clamp securing their ham from which they carve paper-thin with a rapier-like sword.
The labels of authentication to look for are ‘Dehesa de Extremadura’ or ‘Jamón de Huelva’. The best hams are those of pure Iberian pigs fed on a diet of acorns These will bear a red label reading jamón Ibérico de bellota that guarantees the most succulent, delicious and fragrant of hams as well as the highest price tag by far. Next comes Jamón Ibérico de de recebo, followed in descending order by –de campo. These are also excellent but from pigs raised on a diet only partly of acorns. There are a couple of popular misconceptions to watch out for. Jamón Serrano is the less good relative, derived from white pigs that are often intensively raised. Hams named after famous towns like Montanchez and Jabugo, or after the much fancied black trotter or pata negra hog are not much more than trade names – they may be great, or they may be indifferent. It’s the Ibérico in the name that’s all important, and the highest accolade of bellota, or acorn-fed .
While intensification and deforestation have wreaked havoc with delicate farming ecosystems across much of Europe over the last fifty years, the continued popularity of high quality, premium-priced jamón has ensured that the unique Spanish dehesa landscapes have survived relatively unscathed. In this notable victory of conservation, the Iberian pig has played an unwitting though heroic role.
THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN LIVING SPAIN MAGAZINE, A UK MONTHLY.
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