If it’s “pata negra”, then it must be good ham, or not? No, not really, because pata negra is not a collective name for the best ham in Spain (or in the world?). When next time somebody tries to charge you 20 euros for a sad plate of pata negra, first ask them what ham it is. It seems like an insight into the world of the renowned Spanish pig, with or without black foot, is much needed. Our teacher is Loreto Martin Villar of the family business Montesierra which has two branches: one in Jerez and one in Jabugo, the ham Walhalla in Spain. Loreto is the fourth generation ham makers and takes us on a tour through the company.
“Beware, there are pigs out there that are not 100% IbĂ©rico and still have the black feet, so you’re not always sure you’re getting the real deal.” Tells Loreto when we walk through long corridors on plastic booties preventing us to do some slippery acrobatics on the floor covered with the fat of the drying hams. The non-Spaniard often have no idea what they are eating when they get a plate of “pata negra”. The real, good (and often expensive) ham made only here in Spain are the 100% IbĂ©ricos (a breed of pigs) who in the last months of their life are outside mainly eat acorns, hence the name “bellota”. The back leg is then called jamĂłn, the front leg is called the paleta. Since the IbĂ©rico pig gives very fatty meat, it is sometimes cross-breed with other types of pigs, which are leaner and have more meat than fat (however the true flavor of the bellota is in the fat, so eat it and donâ€™t be a pussy). These IbĂ©rico pigs are free range and usually found in the region of Extremadura and Alentejo in Portugal. The village where all the big names in the jamĂłn business have a branch is called Jabugo, a 2 hours drive from Seville. Those with a good sense of smell will notice the perfume of the drying hams when entering the village. High, whitewashed buildings hide hundreds of thousands curing hams. Jabugo has the perfect climate for a pata negra ham to dry: arid winds, low humidity, clean air, .. At Montesierra around 240,000 hams are hanging to dry. A natural process, because there is nothing strange added. The hams are first cut then to extract the moisture covered in salt for a couple of days, next completely rinsed so that no salt is left behind and then dried for several years.
In Montesierra you pay for a foreleg, the paleta, about 18.5 euros per kilo, the hind leg, which is heavier and has more meat, you’re likely to pay here 30 euros per kilo. Youâ€™ll soon realize here in Jabugo a fortune on jamon is hanging to dry, hidden in the dark, cathedral-like buildings where the dry, pure mountain air gives the ham its distinctive flavour. Loreto says it is almost impossible to copy this product. Even if they take the IbĂ©rico pig to a different area or country and give the animal acorns, the ham will taste differently. “For Spaniards, the Holy jamĂłn IbĂ©rico is increasingly becoming a luxury product. Because of the crisis we now sell more pre-cut, vacuum packets of ham instead of complete legs. Most Spanish families will still buy a complete ham for the holidays between Christmas and New Year. ” Montesierraâ€™s export is increasing to other European countries and even Japan, because apparently the Japanese are crazy about jamĂłn ibĂ©rico.
In Jabugo we also visit the small shop of Monteolivo, a much smaller producer of hams who controls the whole process of raising pigs, slaughtering and drying. The owner and farmer Francisca lets us taste the ham. For a paleta of 3.5 kilo, you pay something around 50 euros, a bargain if you know you know the prices in other countries or gourmet shops. The lady looks surprised and frowns when we buy some hams until we point out to the car and make it clear that we do not have the fly. Another advantage of road tripping: fill the trunk with this dried gold of Spain. “You can store them for years if you leave them alone and hang them up somewhere dry.” Laughs Francesca. Good advice but this delicious acorn-fed IbĂ©rico 100% from Jabugo will certainly not make the year-end.