The magic of jamon takes place in the “secadero.” Hams are left there in special attics for months and every day the same ageing dance is performed: every morning, day after day, the windows get shut after being left open over night.
We are in Jabugo, in the Huelva region in Spain in between Andalusia and Estremadura, famous around the world for its jamon iberico. The “cerdo” lives here in the midst of infinite oak trees: it’s a black pig of the Iberian race used to produce the famous jamon de bellota. Each year the 20,000 pigs are turned into the best hams of Spain and there are four protected origins: Huelva-Jabugo, Dehesa de Estremadura, Guijelo-Salamanca and Pedoches-Cordoba.
It’s easy to call it just Spanish ham: it’s been 30 years since the producers association has been protecting it and it goes to show how much of an influence the animal’s diet is on the final product. After turning one, animals over 80kg are left free in the dehesa, their natural habitat. It’s there that you start seeing the differences: jamon de bellota means the animal increases its weight by 60% eating only acorns and herbs. Jamon de “recebo” and of “campo” implies that the animal eats acorns, as well as natural animal feed and grass. This stage is called “montanera” and the animal eats corn, oaks, cork, and lasts from autumn to the end of winter: in the Spring the animal has already doubled its weight, getting close to 180kg. The climate and the vegetable diet transform fat in “good” oils, similar to extra-virgin olive oil (65% oleic acid). After its butchered, the thighs are salted dry and left to age. It should age at least during the summer, and in some cases they can be aged up to 30 months.
The most exclusive hams are the ones you get from the lampiño race. Next to the oak trees in Jabugo you can explore the Domecq land, which belonged to a family of the 1800s known for sherry and brandy, for miles. Nowadays they are known for their horses, corrida bulls, and their land. Their ham is the Rolls–Royce of Iberian ham, aged over 40 months and produced only for famous restaurants. Only 3000 pigs help produce Jamon Domecq. It’s not hard to find it for sale, but it’s best to taste it in special restaurants.
The "jamonera", a sort of base and support that keeps the ham steady while being cut, is common. If you buy jamon de bellot you should know that you need a very sharp and flexible knife. Best not to keep it in the fridge – the ham has to "sweat" at room temperature to preserve better. The best slice is thick and its white noble fat melts in the mouth leaving a toasted, Sunday roast and hazelnut flavour on the palate. The fans eat it alone, not even with bread, and say: "Jamon iberico de bellota is enough in itself.”