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Friday, December 18, 2015

Jamones Eiriz, Jabugo

The Jabugo region of Spain is famous for the production of jamon iberico de bellota (i.e., iberian acorn-fed ham). When my friend IP heard that I was heading off to Spain, she asked me with a touching wistfulness if I could bring back jamon iberico for her, and then she said shyly, "It is ok if you cannot bring back any."

Nonetheless, her entire tone conveyed a gourmet yearning that was most intriguing. I wondered, very curious, at this marvellous ham that could make IP's eyes turn skywards and her entire being tremble with remembered pleasure.

So, I went over to Huber's and bought myself 4 paper thin slices for SGD$10. Wow! That must be some pig because Huber's was selling it at $250/kg! I ate 2 slices, died and went to heaven. When I came to, the other 2 slices had disappeared.

If you drive about 30 minutes out of Seville, you will find yourselves smack in the middle of the dehesas. These are woodland pastures. We tend to imagine pastures as flat grassland for cows and sheep. However, there are animals that graze in woodland pastures (i.e., pastures with trees). Dehesas are woodland pastures that are planted with oak trees (holm oak and cork oak). Over 90% of the corks that are in wine bottles come from Spanish cork oak). Dehesas at higher altitudes also have melojo and quejigo oak. All these oak trees bear acorns. These acorns fall to the ground.

The Iberian black pigs love these fallen acorns. In the months of September to December, the pigs gorge on these acorns. This period of acorn gorging is called the montanera. Acorns have a fair bit of oleic oil in them. These oils make their way into the pigs flesh, marbling it and giving it an aroma that cannot be replicated with spices. The pigs are pampered. The farmers allow nothing to stress these pigs. Even the way to the slaughter house is made stress free and slaughtering is done quickly and humanely in order not to stress the pigs.

Stressed or injured pigs affect ham quality. There is money to be lost if the pigs are not happy.

The farmers give each pig 1 hectare of woodland pasture all to itself. In its 2 years of piggy living, it does nothing but pig out everyday. In the montanera months (where the pigs feed solely on fallen acorns), the pigs put on 1 kg every day.

It is clear that these are happy pigs. They are very tame and friendly. The farmer gives them a mud pool to wallow in. The mud protects the pigs from insect bites. You see, nothing, not even mosquitoes are allowed to stress the pigs. There is fresh clean water and the farmer even puts in effort to ensure that the terrain goes uphill and down dale so that the pigs must exercise a lot as they search for acorns to eat. This exercise distributes fat among the muscle. The pigs also eat mushrooms and wild herbs, which also appropriately season the meat.

Trust the Spanish to think up a meat marination process that takes all of 2 years and starts from inside the pig!

An acorn from the cork oak tree.

The bark of the cork oak tree.

The cork bark that is used for corks.

After about 18 months, the pigs reach between 170kg to 200kg in weight. Then, it is slaughter time. The happy pigs are lead unwittingly (and still happy) to the slaughter house. The carcasses are cut into half and returned to Jamones Eiriz, where the 3 brothers Fernando, Manolo and Domingo begin the long process of curing the meat. Nothing is wasted. Every part of the pig can be eaten.

This is the salting room. The legs are buried in sea salt. They are kept there for a few weeks.

Next, the legs are hung up to dry for a few months.

As they dry under controlled temperatures, penicillin (a type of beneficial mould that preserves and flavours the meat) grows.

Once the penicillin growth is well under way, and the meat is reasonably dried, they are moved to another curing shed for a few years. It takes about 4 years to properly cure a leg of ham.

This is Manolo, one of the 3 brothers who run the farm. This farm turns over 1500 pigs every year. Manolo called the pigs for us. It appears that they only respond to Manolo's voice. When Manolo called them in the dehesa, the pigs came running. Manolo is posing with the sausages made from every part of the pig imaginable. There is even a blood sausage called the morcillo.

If you want to visit, you can email Domingo Eiriz Martin.

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