Tasting jamon in Andalucia
Most of us, by now, have a pretty good idea of the correct way to taste wine. The foodies among us might even know the best technique for sampling olive oil. But how many of us can say we’re familiar with the optimal method for trying jamon, or Spanish cured ham? Or, indeed, knew there was a right or a wrong technique in the first place?
This is just one of the things I’ve learnt today at Eiriz, a family-run producer of acorn-fed ham near Jabugo, in the far west of Spain’s Andalucia region. We’ve stopped off en route to Seville, midway through a seven-day itinerary with Insight Vacations, and I’m learning a lot — not just about eating jamon but also about how it’s made.
Our guide for the morning is Domingo Eiriz Martin, a member of the fourth generation to be involved in running the family business, which was established in 1818. The jamon made here, he explains, comes under a rigorously controlled Denominacion de Origen (designation of origin, or D.O.), a marker of quality and provenance much like the French wine appellations of Champagne and Bordeaux. Jamon de Huelva must be made from free-range Iberico black pigs raised in the Sierra de Huelva region on acorns and other natural feed.
“It is the third-best gourmet product in the world, ” Domingo says proudly. It seems an odd assertion until I ask him what the first and second-best might be: he says Beluga caviar is number one and champagne the runner-up, with his jamon beating out foie gras for third place — in his estimation, at least — as it’s more ethical.
We head out to the fields to meet some of the pampered black pigs for ourselves, accompanied by Domingo and his brother Manolo, who is the pig keeper. The pastures are part of a protected nature park and aside from the piles of pig manure — which I try and ultimately fail to dodge — it’s a lovely spot, the pigs snuffling in the grass in a valley surrounded by oak trees, the twittering of little birds in the air. The pasture size is calculated on a basis of one hectare per pig. “This is not a farm — this is absolutely the opposite, ” Domingo says.
Manolo uses a long stick to dislodge acorns for the pigs to eat.
According to Domingo, Iberico pigs are distinguished not only by their dark skin but also their large size, big snout and fine bones. They follow Manolo around the pasture, scoffing the acorns he dislodges from the trees with a long stick.
It seems a little unseemly to discuss the inevitable end facing the pigs while they’re around but Domingo ploughs on undeterred, describing how they’re sent to the abattoir at 18-24 months of age. This allows them to fatten up during two “montanera” periods (when they can feed on the acorns). Industrially farmed pigs, he says, are slaughtered younger, at 12 months.
One of the black Iberico pigs foraging at Eiriz.
Back in the village, Domingo takes us to see the next stage of the process. We’re kitted out in paper gowns, blue shoe covers and hairnets before he leads us up a flight of steps and into the factory, where we’re greeted by a smell so intensely rich and meaty it’s like being smacked across the face with a slab of jamon. Duly warned by this salutary scent, a couple of members of the group — including the lone vegetarian — make their retreat. My reaction is quite the opposite, and I press on, stomach rumbling in anticipation.
First we see where the Eiriz team make cured sausages, marinating pork loin for two-and-a-half days before squeezing it into casings and hanging it to dry for seven to 10 days. The hanging room has a sharp, intense aroma, and Domingo points out the beneficial mould growing on the sausages as they dry.
Legs of jamon hang for 30-40 days & sausages drying at Eiriz. Pictures: Gemma Nisbet
In another room, we find a low, dense pile of salt. This is where the ham is cured, buried in sea salt from Cadiz before being washed and hung in a climate-controlled chamber for 30-40 days. The latter is very cold and breezy, with cool air circulating constantly.
The hams are then hung in one of a series of natural drying rooms. In one, Domingo pauses amid the forest of cured meat to point out how the ham is shiny, seeming to sweat fat. This is less disgusting than it sounds, but quite at odds with his earlier efforts to convince us his jamon has “not too much calories”. Apparently it’s an indicator of quality (the fat melts at lower temperatures), as are the hams’ slender legs and thin ankles — still with hoof attached.
Domingo, with some of his family's jamon.
Finally, it is time to taste. In the courtyard, Domingo and his family have laid out quite a spread: different kinds of jamon but also cured pork sausages including paprika-spiced chorizo, local cheeses, and bread and wine. It’s here I learn the correct jamon-tasting technique, and it’s mercifully straightforward: inhale the aroma, put the jamon on your tongue and, before you chew and swallow, wait two or three seconds to allow it to melt a little. Like all good things, it’s worth taking the time to savour.
Gemma Nisbet travelled courtesy of Insight Vacations.
A visit to Eiriz is included on various Insight itineraries in the region and is one of the company’s Signature Experiences, designed to enrich the travel experience and go beyond the must-see sights. Both are part of the nine-day Amazing Spain and Portugal itinerary, which also includes visits to Seville, Lisbon, Madrid, Granada and Salamanca. insightvacations.com or 1300 301 672.
For Eiriz, see jamoneseiriz.com.
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