A couple of years ago, I quit my job in the UK and embarked on an adventure in the remote region of Extremadura in south west Spain. My wife Julia and I bought a farmhouse on a hill, surrounded by oak forest, and set about restoring an old barn.
One spring day, our pig-farming neighbour Antonio came up to the house and, after a beer and some olives, slipped me an envelope containing a wad of euros. ‘Para las bellotas,’ he said. For the acorns.
In this part of Spain, the acorn is very highly prized. The lush rolling hills around us are dotted with holm and cork oaks. And beneath them snuffle the famous black pata negra pigs.
Ham hunt: Jabugo, in northern Andalucia, is the capital of Spain’s high-end jamon trade
As agreed months earlier, Antonio had been grazing his free-range pigs under our oak trees, supplementing their diet to produce some of the world’s finest ham. By law the pigs must eat only acorns and grass during their last 60 days.
The nearby town of Jabugo, just over the border in northern Andalucia, is the capital of Spain’s high-end jamon trade. Once fully grown, Antonio’s pure-bred pigs will be sold for slaughter to Spain’s most prestigious producer – Cinco Jotas, or 5J (cincojotas.com).
In Spain, the name is synonymous with the best of the best. We joined a tour of the company’s curing cellars – kitted out in overalls, plastic overshoes and hard hats – to observe the pride and attention to detail that go into every lovely leg.
They have been producing jamon here since at least Roman times –trimming off excess fat, caking the ham in sea salt and allowing it to cure and age for up to five years before it is ready for tapas.
Alongside the cellars’ traditional whitewashed walls and wooden beams, new technology and sparkling ceramic tiles ensure that the produce meets international standards. The company’s head of operations came from the car industry and used aerodynamic testing to ensure the correct flow of air around the precious hams. Each will sell for at least €600 (£534).
Rows of glistening jamon and smaller shoulders hang from hooks as far as the eye can see, hooves intact. Many are marked as the private selection of connoisseur buyers, which includes top restaurants, Spanish royals and Harrods.
All carry the black label that guarantees that the pigs are 100 per cent Iberian, have roamed free in at least a hectare per pig (5J insists upon two) and have been fed acorns.
Highly prized: The ham is from pigs that only eat acorns and grass during their last 60 days
After a visit to the drying rooms, where oil-drum braziers smoke a ceiling-ful of local sausages known as jabuguitos (delicious with eggs and fried potatoes), the urge to eat some of this stuff becomes almost unbearable.
But first there’s an interactive quiz to make sure we’ve been paying attention.
I stumble at question two: How many kilograms of acorns does each pig eat during the acorn season? An astonishing 700 is the answer – more than half a ton. No wonder Antonio was keen to buy ours. But, at last, the tasting.
Seve, a native of Jabugo and a 5J veteran of 30 years, travels the world carving jamon. These days he’s in high demand in China, where passion for Iberian ham has soared. His translucent slivers from various sections of the ham, arranged with tweezers, are art on a plate.
The area from which he takes the main slices remains perfectly flat. I hesitate to mess up his handiwork by eating it. But not for long. The sensation as the fat melts on the tongue, and the sweet yet dry flavour of acorns hits the back of the throat, is simply sublime.
Encouragingly, studies suggest that the fat, which you mustn’t leave on the side of your plate, produces the kind of cholesterol that’s good for the body. Paired with a glass of bone-dry Fino sherry, there are few things finer. Jabugo is a ham industry town –almost everyone who lives around here is involved in it – but it’s not really a place to spend the night.
Consider heading instead to nearby Finca Buenvino (fincabuenvino.com), where British couple Sam and Jeannie Chesterton have become local legends, after more than 30 years in Spain, for their hospitality and first-class cooking with traditional ingredients. Alternatively, Aracena, the nearest large town, is a dignified place with a hilltop castle and the Gruta de las Maravillas – caves with world-renowned rock formations. The town’s beautifully renovated former convent, El Convento (hotelconventoaracena.es), makes an ideal base for a gastronomic tour of the region.
The top-quality ham they produce in Jabugo
As Spain emerges from lockdown, we are aiming to get back there before the end of the summer, and it’s hoped that tourists won’t be far behind. 5J’s cellars are about to reopen to the public, and early autumn, when the heat of summer has abated, is the perfect time to explore this beautiful rural region.
In addition to cellar tours and tastings, starting at €17, Cinco Jotas can arrange visits to the countryside to see the pigs up close, while a four-hour carving course can teach you some of the tricks of the trade.
I prefer to leave it to Manolo, the grave-looking old man who runs Casas, Aracena’s finest old eaterie. Without the need of a stand, he carves the jamon bareback at the table, laying long, shaved ribbons on to a bed of home-fried crisps. A framed newspaper cutting on the wall reports that Casas (restaurantecasas.es) was once voted the best place on Earth to eat jamon.
Manolo visits our table and expounds at length about the simple, delicious food we have been eating – local asparagus, broad beans and the pluma (or feather) cut of pork loin, all garnished with slices of ham.
I lose track, and when he moves on ask my Spanish host what he said. ‘Quality matters,’ she replies.