Jabugo looks unremarkable. Its hills are crowded with narrow streets lined with white-painted houses; you could be in any number of small Andalucian towns. But there is something extraordinary here that’s worth driving 70 miles (110km) from Seville to Huelva Province to experience. It’s Spain’s greatest gift to gastronomy: jamón ibérico.
Hundreds hang from ceiling hooks in the curing cellars at Cinco Jotas, one of the most renowned of the town’s 26 producers. It’s an arresting sight; as they mature naturally (the environment is controlled solely by opening and closing windows) over a period of up to five years, the hams have taken on a waxy appearance and look unreal, like facsimiles. If someone told me I was looking at Damien Hirst’s latest creation I wouldn’t have doubted it – and at £500 to £575 per 13-18lb (6-8kg) ham, they command a similarly hefty price.
When I ask how much meat is contained in the warren of rooms, I’m met with evasiveness. “I can’t tell you in case you’re the tax inspector,” jokes Jago Chesterton, who manages the upmarket boutique shop attached to the cellars (there’s also an exhibition space that tells the story of the 140-year-old business and explains the process that involves trimming the hams of skin and fat, curing in sea salt, washing and then hanging).
He expertly carves a ham at the end of our €15 tour and I sample three cuts, all accompanied by dry white sherry that Chesterton recommends to enhance the flavour. First la maza: broad, stubby strips from the shank with almost even amounts of meat and fat; then contramaza or babilla: leaner slices from the flank. Both are delicious; wafer thin and glistening with the ivory-coloured fat that coats your fingers when served at the correct temperature of between 68-75F (20-24C) to release the full array of complex savoury flavours. But it’s la punta, cut from beneath the hip bone at the bottom of the ham, that delivers the most intensity.
“As the hams have been hanging, any fat that’s melted is concentrated in the punta and brings with it lots of flavours and aromas,” explains Chesterton. Eating it bears comparison to tasting Perigord black truffle or oscietra caviar for the first time. It has an earthy, almost resinous aroma; a firm but not chewy texture and a rich, nutty, deeply savoury flavour that’s salty and buttery with just a hint of sweetness. Like a fine wine, it has great length, lingering pleasantly in the mouth.
To discover why it tastes so good, we head a few miles south to the dehesa, the partly deforested pasture that makes up most of the 455,000-acre (184,000-hectare) Sierra de Aracena and Picos de Aroche natural park (of which Jabugo is also a part).
We arrive at Huerta del Llano farm at dusk, just in time to see the farmer calling the pure-bred black Iberico breed pigs in to their barn for the night. “Way, ray,” he calls out into the rapidly falling night and the animals run like a miniature version of the The Lion King’s wildebeest stampede.
Although closely related to wild boars, the pigs are harmless and entertaining to watch as they scratch against the holm oak trees that dot the landscape and that are so vital to the ham’s production.
By day, the pigs roam the dehesa (production of jamón ibérico is closely controlled and for top-grade “Black Label” status, which Cinco Jotas holds, each pig must have a minimum of 108,000 sq ft of space) foraging for food and in the autumn, the acorns or bellota that give the ham its distinctive flavour.
With so much space and time required, no part of the pig is wasted. Forelegs are cured, hung and sold as shoulder ham or paleta (hams are made from the back legs only) and top chefs worldwide serve the remaining meat and offal.
Down a steep cobbled street in the village of Linares de la Sierra in the Huelva countryside, Luis Miguel López’s nose-to-tail approach includes a raw carpaccio of Iberico pork presa (a cut from the shoulder) with shavings of raw frozen foie gras seasoned with cinnamon salt and a dish of curried sweetbreads. It’s an extraordinary meal to round off a culinary pilgrimage that’s brought new meaning to “hamming it up”.