JAMON IBERICO DE BELLOTA: UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL WITH "OLIVES ON LEGS"
It is hard to believe, looking at these images that my trip to Extremadura took place over two months ago. The memories of that all too fleeting visit are as vivid now as they were the day I returned.
Why, you may well ask, did I leave it so long to post about my trip to the home of Jamon Iberico? The answer is simply a matter of courtesy. Some of you may have seen the corresponding feature that appeared in the Guardian.co.uk yesterday and I always feel that if someone is going to pay me cold hard cash to write about something, it is only decent to let them have their go before I post about it on the blog.
The delay does not matter however, because if I close my eyes, I can still savour every moment of my time spent in the farmhouse of Felipe Perez Corcho in the small town of Burguillos del Cerro. The sounds of oak tree leaves rustling in the breeze, the snuffling of the Iberico pigs as they guzzled acorns, the scent of hams as they cured in a vast cellar at the processing plant, the taste, that incomparable taste, which in my opinion, surpasses any other luxury food on earth and, of course, the amazing hospitality of my hosts.
I wont go into too much detail about the process of creating this finest of all fine foods, if you are interested, you can read my article. But, be in no doubt that the stringent guidelines and checks that take place before a “sacrificed” Iberico porker can be given the surname “De Bellota” more than justify the considerable expense involved in sampling the best.
My trip came about when I contacted my friends at Brindisa, to see if they had any contacts they might share with me to facilitate a visit to an Iberico pig farm. Instead, being the splendid folk that they all are, they invited me to join their buying team on a trip to a relatively new supplier, Señorio De Montanera, a co-op of 72 farmers who produce only the very top grade of Jamon Iberico.
When my plane arrived in Sevilla, via Madrid, I was exhausted. The previous night had seen the latest in the DINE WITH DOS HERMANOS events at Bentley’s. It had been a particularly good example of the genre and, although I had not been drinking, the late night meant that I had not gone to bed and had only caught a few hurried minutes sleep while dribbling over the shoulder of a disgruntled Spanish businessman on the second leg of the journey.
I was met at the gate by Brindisa’s Sales Account Manager, Cristina Pasantes and M.D. Alastair Brown who whisked me from the airport for the two-hour journey towards the Portuguese border, with a welcome stop at a typical small roadside restaurant to sample a couple of restorative beers and a few plates of food. By the time we arrived at the finca, the traditional farmhouse, it was late in the day and the sun was already declining in the sky. There was, however, still time for us to wander out into the Dehesa to get up close and personal with the Iberico pigs as they indulged in their daily diet, no less than 6kgs of acorns a day. It is the oleic acid in these acorns which gives the Jamon Iberico De Bellota its unmistakeable flavour and the layer of fat which melts on the tongue as you eat the slivers of ham.
I slept very soundly that night. A combined result of my exhaustion and a large meal at a local restaurant supplemented by far too much wine. When I awoke, showered and dressed the next morning, I found everyone waiting for me in the farmhouse kitchen. Felipe Perez Corcho (his last name means “cork” the other great product of the region) was standing by a well-used ham stand and carving thin slices off a large leg of Jamon Iberico to serve to his guests along with eggs and toast. It was the perfect start to a busy day which saw us visit another of the co-operative’s farms and then, best of all the abattoir and processing plant where live porkers become Dos Hermanos’s favourite nibble.
Every second of the process is monitored. Not just by the farmers, but also by those who monitor each and every pig to see if it reaches the standards of the Denomination of Origin, Jamon Iberico De Bellota. After slaughter and butchering, the legs and shoulder cuts are chilled over night to become firmer and then the curing process begins. As the picture shows, the curing rooms are difficult places in which to take pictures as they are filled with artificially created mist designed to replicate the traditional climate in which the hams used to be cured. Once they have stayed under a layer of Andalucian sea salt for the required time, they are hung up to age in a vast warehouse that, I was told held over 300,000 Jamons and Paleta (the shoulder cut)
The hams are stored for up to four years and then tested one more time before they can be released. This final test was the most intriguing as the hams were pierced in three places with a porous beef bone which was then sniffed loudly by a man whose years of experience and highly tuned sense of smell could tell him immediately if the cure had reached all the key areas of the meat. Then and only then would the jamon finally be given the much sought after tag which confirmed that it was indeed “Jamon Iberico De Bellota”
That marked the end of my trip and after spending one last night in Sevilla with my hosts, I joined the long queue for an early flight home to London the next morning. I carried with me a bag filled with pork products and even more appreciation of what it takes to create my favourite thing to eat.
I would be lying if I told you that the piggy treats lasted much past the following weekend, particularly once HP got involved, but the sights, sounds and smells of my visit to the Dehesa certainly have and will, I am sure stay with me for the rest of my life.