In all of old Europe, there are few regions more beautiful than the hills of the Sierra de Aracena, in southern Spain. This is Andalusia – the country of the poet Lorca – where mountain brooks flow along valleys of oak; through olive, almond and fig groves; and among lavender, rockrose and juniper.
This was the country to which Rosa Gonzalez returned when her father died in 1991. She was 28 years old and one of four daughters who had inherited the family cortijo, a tumbledown farmhouse not far from the town of Jabugo. At that time, the region was still staid and conservative, but suddenly there were no men to boss the sisters about and they were free to make what they could of the land. Gonzalez had been working as a vet in Seville, and she had an idea.
"I came back to my roots," she explains. "I wanted to wake up here and breathe the air. I wanted to see if we could make an income from the land." Gonzalez knew she would have to leave Seville and live on the farm if she and her sisters were going to bring the peeling white-washed buildings back to life. And what she wanted to do was... well, redeploy her veterinary knowledge and skills in the service of rearing the best bred and cared-for pure Iberian pigs in the world. Pigs – nicknamed pata negra because of their trademark black hooves – that produce what is considered by many to be the finest cured meat available: the famous jamón ibérico de bellota (acorn-fed Iberian ham).
"Part of the reason for living here with the pigs is that we can look after them from birth," Gonzalez says as she hands me an acorn to sample. "We have 50 little ones and they wake early. We check on them every night and we’re able to ensure that their diet is perfect and that they are healthy and happy. And, of course, as soon as they are old enough, they are free to roam..." She gestures toward the valleys of holm oak all around.
She continues, "There were not so many people doing pure breeds when we started, because they are less productive. And what was the point when consumers were not able clearly to identify what pigs were being used for which hams?" Since January 2014, however, there has been a rigorously enforced labelling system for ibérico that distinguishes three principal factors: breed, diet and whether the pig was free to range or was kept in a pen. The finest category is the black label, jamón 100% ibérico de bellota, ticking all three boxes: a pure-bred Iberian pig; allowed to roam; and that has fed only on acorns during the officially declared montanero period in late autumn and early winter. But Gonzalez went the extra mile – and then some. For more than 25 years, she has been breeding from only the best mothers, monitoring the process with a vet’s skill and care for research and genes. And while the law requires each animal to have a minimum of one hectare to roam, Gonzalez’ pigs have double that space, meaning that they daily walk on average 14km, during the course of which they feast on the sweetest acorns they can find – often as much as 7kg in a day.
This produces an extraordinary flavour. The distance the animals wander – and their constant negotiation of gradient – creates a much suppler, darker, redder meat than most hams. The acorns are super-rich in oleic acid, which has a unique way of dispersing evenly through the particular muscle in the pure breeds to create a melt-in-the-mouth texture. And the pigs also eat other things that they find – apples, plums, mushrooms, herbs, roots, cherries – producing a delicate, layered, subtle, salty-but-sweet nutty flavour.
In the Cinco Jotas curing cellars, the salting (with Andalusian sea salt), air drying and how the hams are hung (for up to three years) also make a big difference. The cellar master will continually monitor temperature and adjust humidity. And only hams of the right weight make it, each tested by touch and aroma by experts trained like parfumiers to detect quality. The upshot: the cellars are thronged with the names of the world’s best chefs and restaurants, all tagged on to their rows of reserved hams awaiting release.
Make no mistake though; it’s out on the hills in the oak groves where jamón 100% ibérico de bellota is really made. Mist hangs over the rivers in the morning, giving place to dappled light that trickles through every colour of leaf in the afternoon. And in the evening, everybody gathers in the village squares to sit and sample the jamón – best washed down with a fine dry sherry from Jerez.
By Edward Docx