Culinary Anthropologist

Acorn to bacon

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Smdehesaacorns0001.jpgWe knew the jamón in Spain can be fantastic, and we wanted to make sure we got to try the best.  So after asking around we found ourselves in Jabugo, surrounded by miles of ‘dehesa‘ countryside and little white-washed villages on hilltops, with the sweet, sweet smell of curing jamón wafting through the air everywhere we went…

Smpatanegra0001.jpgAnd the hams hanging up in the cellars and lofts of the tall houses, complete with their cunning self-ventilating Arabic slate roofs, weren’t any ordinary jamón, they were ‘jamón iberico de bellota‘.  That is to say they’re made from Iberian (‘pata negra‘) pigs who have eaten vast quantities of acorns while snuffling free-range amid the oak trees.  And you can’t get any better than that.  (Neither can the pig I suspect, who seems extremely happy expressing her natural pigginess in the beautiful wild dehesa.)

I can still taste the jamón now.  Probably because we ate enough to last a lifetime while visiting master-makers Sánchez Romero Carvajal, staying with pata negra breeders at Finca La Silladilla and stopping for a jamón top-up at every bar we found.  Jamón iberico de bellota has that special property, shared with only a handful of other foods, that fills the whole mouth with a flavour so rich, complex and divine it sends a wave of extreme pleasure throughout the body.  Really.  Of course it has a lot to do with the aromas – sweet, nutty, almost cheesy – and texture – melt in the mouth perfection.  

Smhangingjamons0001.JPGThis perfection is due to a number of factors – namely the pig (very carefully bred and selected pure Iberians), its genes (they have the peculiar defect of their muscles being strewn with fat which allows extra-long curing and supplies extra-yummy acorny flavours), its lifestyle (lots of exercise, wild herbs and acorns), the salting and lengthy curing process (the finer details of which are kept top secret by the best jamón makers), and the considerable knowledge and skill of the many farmers, butchers, curers and slicers involved.

Smjamoncloseup0001.jpgFor the ultimate jamón experience, I recommend making sure it’s both ‘iberico‘ and ‘de bellota‘, cut by someone who knows what they’re doing, well marbled with streaks of flavour- and texture-enhancing fat, served at 22-23 C, and enjoyed with a glass of chilled fino on a patio somewhere in the dehesa.  Also preferably paid for by someone else, as the real deal costs a small fortune.  And, incidentally, not necessarily Denominación de Origen.  ‘DO’ is usually a sign of top quality and authenticity, although intriguingly not in the case of jamón de Jabugo.  But that’s another story…

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