Spain holds many claims to agricultural fame; none tastier than the Iberian pigs of South Western Spain. Since Natalie’s parents suggested a rendezvous in Spain, we knew we had to get a look at these amazing pigs in their natural habitat.
Through countless google searches and online forum stalking, we came upon the fine folks at Posadas Alajar and their hidden gem Iberian Ham School. Owners Ángel Millán and Lucy Arkwright host the 4-day, 3-night ham bonanza at their beautiful, eco-friendly guesthouse in the adorable village of Alajar smack-dab the middle of Iberian pig country. After corresponding with Lucy, we arranged a custom program for our budget and timeline. Four months later, we met Lucy’s other half, Seville native Ángel, at the deliciously indulgent Museo del Jamón de Aracena.
Driving the Spanish countryside is absolutely stunning, especially in this part of the world, known as the dehesa. Romans began cultivating the area over 2,000 years ago, converting a near barren wasteland of sun-baked, rocky land littered with inhospitable brush into fertile farmland by uprooting the scruff, tilling the soil, and planting the multiple varieties of oak trees that define the area to this day. This unique ecosystem is one of the largest and oldest examples of sustainable farming on Earth. Spanning the Iberian Peninsula from Spain to Portugal, the dehesa encompasses nearly 20,000 square kilometers of integrated pastures dotted with white-washed villages of varying sizes.
Along with luxurious grounds for Iberian pigs, the dehesa provides the finest cork in Spain (cork is a type of oak tree), grazing lands for sheep and goats in the spring, and plenty of wood to heat winter fires. In its wooded glory, the dehesa is also a prime mushroom growing habitat (all the more reason to time our next visit to La Posada de Alajar with the fall foraging season).
Jamon Iberico is a natural product of the dehesa. The regal black Iberian pig has been a cornerstone of the landscape for over a millennium (Iberian pigs even feature in pre-neolithic cave paintings). But today it is one of the rarest breeds on Earth.
For decades the Iberian pig faced the threat of extinction. Introduction of the white pig (superior at putting on muscle mass in a shorter amount of time) lead farmers away from old-world animals and traditional techniques. Luckily, Iberian pig farmers of the dehesa continued to rear these beautiful animals with a collective tenacity.
Iberian pigs are direct descendants of the wild boars that still roam the dehesa. The Iberian pig shares more physical traits with its wild cousin than the domestic white pig. Like wild boars, Iberian pigs have large torsos with slender legs, a very long snout (evolutionarily designed to forage); they are covered in short black hair and have black hooves. Pata negra—the street name for Jamón Ibérico— comes from the black hoof that remains on the ham throughout the curing (and vending) process. This hoof helps distinguish Jamón Ibérico from the more widely available Jamón Serrano.
Iberian pigs are genetically geared toward fat production (both inter-muscular and large fat caps). These special black pigs take—and are given— two full years to maximize their fat potential. In contrast, white pigs go to slaughter at 8-10 months. This high fat content allows Jamón Ibérico to cure for much longer than other hams which leads to a more complex and intense flavor.
Iberian pigs would not become Jamón Ibérico without the the humble acorn, or bellota. Iberian pigs love acorns. So much so that the crème de la crème of them—the future Jamón Ibérico de Bellota—eat ten kilos a day.
Iberian pigs destined to become Jamón Ibérico de Bellota are released from their free range fields into the open dehesa at around 10-months for the annual montenera season. Free to roam, the 200 lbs pigs gorge on a diet of wild acorns and gain up to 2 lbs a day. By the end of the three-four month montenera, these prize Iberian pigs roughly double their weight. The once strapping young animals return to the farm as lumbering giants bursting at the seams. The montenera season not only fattens the pigs, but roaming up and down the wild dehesa hills is an essential part of exercising the pigs’ hind and front legs (which become jamón and paleta, respectively). Healthy muscle development plays a huge role in the nuanced flavor and texture of the final cured jamón.
But not all Iberian pigs are destined to win the Jamón Ibérico de Bellota lottery. There are four different Jamón Ibérico rankings (the same apply to paleta). Each ranking correlates directly to diet. Even a genetically perfect Iberian pig won’t garner the highest ranking if the animal doesn’t meet the full dietary standards.
- Jamón Ibérico de Bellota - The highest rank a Jamón Ibérico can reach. This animal spent the last 3-4 months of its life roaming freely in the dehsa eating its fill of bellota. These are the most rare jamón, can cost as much as double other classes, and are amazingly complex in flavor. They must age for at least three years, but are sometimes aged up to five.
- Jamón Ibérico de Recebo - These animals are fed a mixed diet of acorns and cereals in their finishing months and roam freely for a shorter period, and are pasture raised for longer.
- Jamón Ibérico Cebo de Campo - Free range Iberian pigs fed cereals. The pigs still have access to some open pastures and still develop great muscle structure, but lack acorn finishing and have a less complex flavor.
- Jamón Ibérico de Cebo - Iberian pigs raised on cereal. They are often cross-bred with white pigs and often do not have access to open pastures.
The montenera season is followed by the slaughter. Traditionally, most dehesa families owned at least a few Iberian pigs of their own. Just before winter, the matanza, or sacrifice, took place. Ángel showed us how all the old houses in the area still have jamón hooks. When Ángel and Lucy refurbished La Posada de Alajar, they found several-generation-old hooks drilled into the ceiling beams. In winter, several of their neighbors still hang jamóns in their windows for the first days of curing.
Today, most Iberian pigs are sent to large slaughterhouses for processing. Carcasses are then shipped to smaller curing houses, where the process of aging jamón and paleta begins upon arrival. Traditionally, men produce jamón and paleta, while women are responsible for the chacina—aka everything else. The root of this traditional gendered division of labor is that an Iberian pig leg can weight up to 70 lbs fresh, and while curing, the jamón and paleta must be continuously raised and lowered raised using a long stick that requires intense upper body strength.
Chacina includes the insanely tasty chorizo, salchichón and morcilla sausages made from Iberian pork and lots of local paprika. Choice fresh cuts from the loins and shoulders are put aside for cooking.
Over the last century, the Jamón Ibérico process has become decidedly more high volume. Even family owned and operated factories now cure in large quantities, curing not just their own pigs, but also other Iberian pigs farmed in their communities.
Ángel brought us to family run Eírez. Their gorgeous Iberian pigs roam in a field above the curing facility, which is next to the family home. The family still lives on site and still manages the jamón production process from start to finish, just like they have for four generations. One moment we were standing inside a room equipped to cure 400 jamón and paleta, and the next we found ourselves on a matriarch-guided tour of the family house. Jamón Ibérico doesn’t get more real than this.
Keeping traditional methods alive, even as their production scale increases, is obviously a key ingredient in the Eírez jamón recipe. The great grandmother’s original one-room house, has even been converted into a museum of sorts dedicated to displaying traditional jamón making tools and methods used and passed down through centuries of tradition. At the end of the tour, it made an incredible setting to taste Eíriz’s range of jamón and paletas and talk with Ángel about how personal and culturally important the process of raising and curing Iberian pigs is to the people of Huelva province.
Setting the table | Eíriz, Huelva, Spain
Curing jamón and paleta is the same process. But given their comparative sizes, there’s a difference in the time each is left in the cure and then hung. The process begins by covering each leg, stacking them on top of each other, and curing for a few weeks (the exact number of days is a trade secret and changes by season and on the salt, which is reused throughout the season and replaced at the beginning of each year). The hams are periodically rotated from top to bottom of the stack, flattening and giving them their iconic shape. The amount of time a ham remains in the salt cure is critical. One day too long and the ham becomes too salty (a common mistake in home curing), one day too short and the ham could rot from the inside out.
After the direct salt cure, hams are meticulously cleaned to remove all excess salt. Then they are hung in a dark, cool room, ventilated to circulate natural outside air. The open-air environment is a huge contributor to the final Jamón Ibérico flavour. The aromas of the dehesa envelope and permeate the jamón, creating one-of-a-kind product that truly could not be replicated anywhere else in the world.
Jamón and paleta from the same hog hang on the same hook. To monitor the jamóns‘ progress, the resident curing master uses a long stick with a cow’s tibia point fashioned on the end. He inserts the bone into the jamón, and the smell is all he needs to keep the curing process on schedule and the jamón and paletas properly rotated. Jamón is open-air cured for 18 months – 3 years. After the open-air curing room, the jamons head down to the aging bodega. In the cool, dark bodega they are covered in a neutral oil (Eíriz uses sunflower) which protects them from pests, works as a seal, and keeps the meat moist. Jamons are left to hang in the bodega for another 1–3 years
During the curing process both jamón and paleta lose almost half their original weight by “sweating”. In warmer months sweating speeds up; in cooler months it slows. Thanks to Iberian pigs’ fat content, Jamón Iberico can go through this process for multiple years, with each year’s air adding unique and complex dehesa flavors. As the room warms and cools, the meat’s muscle fibers, tissue, and fat slowly break down and releases healthy mono-unsaturated fats high in oleic acid. The only fat with more oleic acid is olive oil, giving way to the Spanish saying “An Iberian pig is like an olive tree with four legs.”
All in, an individual Jamón Ibérico de Bellota takes a producer anywhere between 5 – 7 years before he/she reaps any profit. The finished product has a golden hue, a beautiful fat cap, dark red meat, with absurd (in a good way) inter-muscular marbling.
Jamon Iberico should be stored and served at room temperature, sliced paper-thin (to the point that the fat is translucent).
Carving one of these beauties is NOT as easy as Ángel makes it look.
The Iberian pig and the Jamón Iberico it produces are unlike any other agricultural story on earth. Spain is lucky to have such a national treasure and heritage intact, and it’s amazing to think of how long the Iberian pig has tantalized taste buds.
Jamon and paleta treats at Eíriz | Huelva, Spain
Choosing Lucy and Ángel as our Iberian pig guides was not a good but a great idea. They not only provided us with amazing hospitality, but went out of their way to make sure we had a completely unique insider’s experience. Our time in Iberian pig land was one of our favourite experiences thus far. We hope anyone passionate about food and sustainable agriculture headed to the Aracena/Alajar area of Spain will let La Posada de Alajar make their Iberian pig experience an unforgettable one.