The world's best ham

By Fiona Sims

The world's best ham

These are the happiest pigs I’ve ever seen. I swear one of them just smiled at me, as we crunch our way over a carpet of discarded acorn shells in the Dehesa. I’m in Andalucía in Southern Spain, in the Sierra de Aracena about an hour’s drive northwest of Seville, and I’ve come to see a man about a pig.

Juan Carlos Dominguez is a pig farmer. But not just any pig farmer. He keeps a breed of black pig that dates back to the caveman. They’re big, with slender legs and a long snout, and surprisingly little hair. And they have black hooves – hence the name ‘pata negra’.

I am of course talking about the king of ham, jamón Ibérico, and more specifically that which comes from 100% acorn-fed black Ibérico pigs that roam wild and free in a unique ecosystem of prairie-like grazing land dotted with holm oak trees and wildflowers that once covered 90% of the country and now only remains in Salamanca, Extremadura and Andalucía, and just across the border in Portugal.

The black pigs happily stuff their faces with sweet acorns (bellota) before ending their life cycle in the curing and ageing rooms of venerable ham producers, who stroke, pat and prod every leg, ensuring its trademark nutty, sweet flavours.

This was my guilty pleasure – scoffing a plate of expertly carved jamón Ibérico at my favourite London tapas bar, José, washed down with a glass of nutty, salty fino sherry. Now I’m feeling not so guilty. This is art.

“I can’t live without ham,” declares chef José Pizarro at Ibérico ham HQ, in the town of Jabugo - yes, the man behind that tapas bar, and the nearby Pizarro Restaurant, and his latest venture José Pizarro Broadgate. I’ve joined him on one of his regular jamón Ibérico pilgrimages where he checks in with his supplier, Cinco Jotas, whose founders pretty much put it on the map.

“This is the cathedral of ham,” says Pizarro, as we gaze at the ranks of their sweet smelling ham hanging from specially constructed rafters in vast cellars with their wonderfully low tech window vents cranked opened slightly to aid the ageing process.

Cinco Jotas was established in 1879 in Jabugo by one Juan Rafael Sanchez Romero, who opened the very first pure Iberian pig slaughterhouse here. The town has a unique microclimate that is particularly suitable for curing this ham, and many other producers followed, along with strict regulations and a pecking order of quality levels.

Now Jabugo has become a Mecca for ham lovers all over the world, who flock here by the coach load to cruise the ham bars, and learn more about its labour-intensive production methods. Though Cinco Jotas is the only producer that offers a plate of ham carved from different parts of the leg so you can taste the difference.

Pizarro likes his ham with a particular cure. “I have my hams cured a little longer than most so the flavours are developed to the max,” he says. His hams sit in a special ageing cellar with other special customers’ hams, all of whom have requested their own particular cure. You don’t normally get to see this bit on the official tour - the Spanish Royal Family’s hams also reside in these rooms so discretion is key.

The Cinco Jotas Visitor Centre is new, too, opened last summer. It costs 12 euros for a one and a half hour visit and that includes a half portion of ham and a glass of wine. You don’t need to book but it’s recommended. Go - if only for the IMAX-style wrap around screen showing a movie of the pampered pigs roaming the Dehesa. You’re snuffling acorns right there with them.

It takes six years of nurturing until we get to eat it – two years frolicking in the fields, then four years ageing in the cellars. It’s a bargain, really, I tell myself as I stock up on the world’s most expensive ham before the journey home.

A whole ham weighing 6-7kg costs 600 euros, and for 80g pre-sliced ham it costs 28 euros, available online from Cinco Jotas