Jamón Ibérico: What It's Like to Journey to the Source
As my car drove up a meandering, narrow road through a grove of oak trees near the village of Jabugo, Spain, an hour outside of Seville, I reminded myself to stay alert. It’s not every day you get to observe free-range pigs in their natural habitat, and I was determined not to miss them. I was there visiting one of the top Jamón Ibérico producers in Spain—a company called Cinco Jotas.
These aren’t any pigs, of course. They’re Ibérico pigs, a breed indigenous to the Iberian peninsula and the kind used by Cinco Jotas to make its premium Jamón Ibérico, which is considered to be among the best in Spain and, indeed, the world. In the dehesa, which loosely translates to pasture or meadow, the pigs walk about 14 kilometers each day in search of acorns—they prefer the holm oaks’ acorns the most, because they produce the sweetest nuts.
You can only go to the UNESCO World Heritage-designated national forest, known as Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche, between October and March, which is peak acorn season. After that, the pigs are slaughtered. Before, they are just being born, readying for the feast to come. If you're lucky enough to visit during the right window, you can also take a mushroom walk with the folks at Cinco Jotas, during which you'll traverse the forest with a knowledgeable guide, collecting mushrooms that you will then learn how to cook, while also roasting chestnuts. An exclusive tasting experience is also available, where you can have an outdoor tasting in the forest with your very own carver.
When you’re done visiting the pigs, the Cinco Jotas’ facility in Jabugo, which is a veritable pork wonderland, should not be missed. The cellar opened to the public just four years ago, and they offer a great tour of the facilities, which gives an in-depth history of the region, the curing process, the company and a by-foot exploration of the cellar, which is bedecked with thousands of golden yellow ham legs that dangle from the ceiling.
And of course, if you’re traveling all the way to southern Spain, you’d be remiss not to try the tasting experience at Cinco Jotas. There’s a simple tasting, which showcases both shoulder and ham cuts along with other Cinco Jotas selections, like chorizo, lomo and other cured products. The top-of-the-line option is a live carving experience, which employs one of Cinco Jotas master carvers, who have extensively trained for the sole purpose of slicing premium cured meat. They will guide guests through each part of the leg, instruct you on the proper way to remove the fat, and show you how to slice in order to distribute fat over every slice. And, of course, you’ll get to eat a lot of ham in the process.