SALVELIO’S home town of Guijuelo, about two hours’ drive by car north west of Madrid, is famous all across Spain for its unique “jamón Ibérico”, as this is the town in Spain where most of the country’s dry-cured ham is produced.
Pork has always been important in Spanish culture and cooking, dating back to Roman times and even earlier. In many towns across Spain you will also find ancient Celtiberian stone sculptures of verracos, or wild boars.
Iberian ham is not unlike Italy’s Parma ham and there are similarities in the production process, which sensitively combines the artisanal approach with modern technology.
The big difference between Parma ham and Iberian ham is that the latter made from the leg of an indigenous black pig that has been roaming the Iberian peninsula for thousands of years, and eats the acorn or “bellota” from the encina, a tree that grows all over Spain, Portugal and in other parts of the Mediterranean.
I spotted a pair of these pigs on a farm near Guijuelo and found them quite enchanting. They had pointy snouts, long legs, floppy ears and were extremely healthy-looking and muscular as they are free to roam the countryside all day. And, because of their special diet enjoyed among the holm and cork oaks, the marbled fat of Iberian pigs is said to have health benefits one would not normally associate with meat products.
Jamón Ibérico is expensive though, because of its quality and the fact that the maturation process typically takes several years.
Most self-respecting bars in the area will have jamón on offer and indeed many homes will also have a leg from which they can carve slices as needed. Slicing jamón is practically an art form in Spain.
While based in the town, Salvelio and I visited the Quintín Sánchez factory where its owner, Jesús María Sánchez, his charming wife Carmina and daughter Núria took us on a tour of the premises and explained the jamón production process to us.
Jesús explained that the pigs are brought to Guijuelo for slaughter from pasturelands in provinces like Salamanca and Extremadura, while even Andalusia in the south of Spain and a small part of Portugal also cultivate the animals.
There are many jamón factories in Guijuelo and as such it is a major employer in the town. Jesús says the big jamón boom in Guijuelo started in the 1980s when it secured the rights to label Iberian products as coming from Guijuelo.
However the town’s jamón tradition is much older, dating at least to the late 1800s. Jesús’s own family took their first steps in the industry in the early 1960s, when his late father started a factory in partnership with another relative and then eventually went solo. The current factory has been operating since the early 1980s.
It was a business built up through tireless hard work, research and experimentation and at some point also just pure self-belief. Today Quintín Sánchez has a fine reputation for best-quality charcuterie. It produces jamón and other cured products like chorizo, panceta and salchichón (similar to chorizo but without the addition of Spanish smoked paprika or pimentón); “lomo” is another classic cured product and involves a loin being treated with spices including pimentón and then placed in a sausage casing, after which it is dried over time. These and other dry-cured products are sold from their factory shop on the premises.
Iberian pork is not just used for dry-curing but can also be bought fresh. The meat is of an excellent quality and very different in taste and texture to “regular” pork, so much so that it is becoming quite sought-after by the top chefs of Spain and Europe. Even the Japanese have cottoned on as they favour lean, extremely healthy meat of which Iberian pork fits the bill perfectly.
The cuts in Spain tend to be very different to what we know here though, and may include the “presa”, “pluma”, “sorpresa” and “secreto”, among others.
Quintín Sánchez’s products are distributed through various wholesalers and retailers around Spain and in countries like France.
Jesus and his team are also exploring several foreign markets such as Russia, which buys up a lot of the fat from the Iberian pig. Because Russia is so cold in winter, Jesus says, people there eat a very dark, dense and highly nutritious bread which they then spread thickly with pork fat; and as fat goes there is no doubt Ibérico is among the finest. Wash that sarmie down with a couple of shots of vodka and you’re good to fight the ice for a few more hours!
The production of jamón takes place in various chambers and by means of various processes, starting with the raw hams being salted in layers, with the bottom layers periodically brought up to the top to ensure consistency in salting. The hams are then dried over time, some in naturally ventilated chambers and others in areas where temperature and conditions are carefully controlled; Jesus’s factory also employs a method combining the two approaches.
During the time that they dry the hams reduce significantly in size and weight and that also contributes to the high cost of the end product, although in the current economic climate the cost of jamón has come down markedly.
Bellota-fed Iberian ham is considered a gourmet food in the rest of Spain and also in Europe, but in Guijuelo it is a part of life that is appreciated daily in many of the town’s cafes and kitchens. It is served wafer thin on wonderful Salamanca bread that is a lot finer but somehow denser than the bread we know in South Africa.
Jamón (I can’t even bring myself to refer to it as “ham” as that just reminds me of the horrible sandwich stuff!) has a delicate texture, rich colour and complex, intense taste that lingers after you have finished the last piece. If you ask me it is the best taste in the whole wide world and if I had any say in the matter, I would choose it to be my last meal on this earth!
After our tour of the factory Jesús, Carmina and the lovely Núria us to their home in Guijuelo for an impromptu tapas dinner. We ended up having a splendid evening over cocktails and Rioja wine from their cellar – and got to taste some of the fine products Jesus and his family have proudly been putting their name to for so many years. What a memorable end to what was an altogether fascinating day!