Famed French chef Albert Roux once told me that he only cooked chickens that looked happy, as they made the tastiest meat. Here in Andalusia, Spain, located an hour northwest of Seville, I’m looking at a group of black pigs that certainly appear as though they’re having a good time. They’re wandering around a dehesa, remnants of original Mediterranean forest, populated mainly by oak trees, and they’re chomping away on acorns lying on the ground. These are ibérico pigs, a unique breed closely related to the wild boar, that was imported into Spain by the Phoenicians thousands of years ago. Their cured hams, coming from both the back and front legs, are known as jamón ibérico, the best in Spain and, some would argue, the best in the world. And the price tag reflects it: A whole 16-pound leg can cost $1,000 or more.
The regulations are strict — each pig must come from purebred parents, have at least two hectares to roam and can only eat acorns and grass. In the months preceding their slaughter, they wander some 14 kilometers (more than eight miles) per day, consuming around seven kilograms of acorns and three kilograms of grass per day, plus wild berries, roots, mushrooms, aromatic plants, small invertebrates and nuts. For this amount of exercise, they need a large supply of oxygen to the muscles in their legs; the diet adds a distinctive vein of fat running through their hams. They’re also high in oleic acid, the same ingredient found in olive oil, so some call the pigs “olives on legs.”
After feasting through the autumn, at around 18 months old, the pigs have reached their kill weight of around 160 kilograms (around 350 pounds). These specific ones are being bred for the Cinco Jotas Company, and they’re taken to their curing facility in the nearby village of Jabugo, where they’re slaughtered and their legs are separated. Next, the exterior fat is removed and the legs are immersed in salt for around a day per kilogram. They’re hung and dried for 30 to 60 days, which allows the salt to penetrate the meat.
Finally they’re taken down to a huge cellar, 600 meters (almost 2,000 feet) long, where they’re hung for three years. Standing outside this building, there’s a definite hammy smell in the air and, once inside, you can see why. Around 100,000 hams hang on hooks from the ceiling — like bats in a cave. The temperature here is controlled by opening and closing windows, and if the air gets too dry, workers splash water on the floor. A team of experts monitor the hams daily, painting them with oil every three months to control mold and moving them around 60 times. It’s the master piercer’s job to decide when they’re ready, which he does by inserting a needle down to the bone and getting a whiff of the aroma.
In the tasting room, I get a chance to try some for myself. Carving the meat also requires great skill — the perfect slice must be small enough for one bite, and so thin that you can almost see through it. Different parts yield different tastes, and it’s easy to spot the differences on the plate. The maza, from the center and largest part, has clean striations of fat with the meat soft and juicy; the punta is from the top of the thigh and is sweeter with more marbling; the cana comes from near the hoof and is slightly chewy, but packed with flavor. If you order ibérico in a restaurant, you’re not usually given the choice, but my favorite is the punta — an accompanying glass of Fino sherry is the perfect match.
Of course, there is a lot more meat on the pigs than just the legs, and the rest of the animal is sold to local butchers and restaurants. That means that wherever you eat in the region, you’re guaranteed high-quality meat. I get a taste of what’s on offer at Puerta, a small bar and restaurant in Aracena. Pluma comes from the back of the shoulder — only two from each pig — and here it is served medium rare, a nice surprise since I’m used to overcooked pork. Presa is a shoulder steak with a substantial amount of intramuscular fat, but mine is disappointingly tough.
The next day, I lunch at Arrieros Restaurant in the nearby village of Linares, tucked away down a cobbled street. This time, the presa is delightful, grilled rare with just a few chopped llanegas mushrooms. Now I begin to understand what all the fuss is about. They’re also serving pluma, but this time in a hamburger mixed with another type of wild mushroom. It may seem like sacrilege to do this to the king of pork cuts, but it works surprisingly well. Chef Luismi Lopez has been offered jobs at major restaurants in big cities, but he stubbornly stays here in this tiny village. It is, as they say, worth the detour.
A 75-minute tour of the Cinco Jotas cellar costs 12€ (around $13) and includes a carving demonstration and a tasting session.
The Hotel Convento Aracena makes a comfortable base for exploring the region.