If this is what a Spanish pigsty looks like, I’m moving in. The air is crisp and fresh. Sprawling oak trees stretch to the sun and blue-green hills roll into the distant mountains. The only sound for miles is the faint grunting of hogs as they scrounge for their favorite treat among the scraggly grasses.
This is Guijelo, the heart of Spanish ham country. It is here in this southern tip of Salamanca that some of the most expensive and sought after pigs in Spain frolic.
I had the great fortune to take a look behind the scenes of the ancient ham-making process with one of the region’s most seasoned producers, Faustino Prieto. For Faustino, the recipe for excellent ham is simple. Pure-bred Iberian pigs, an enormous supply of acorns, fresh mountain breezes and time – lots and lots of time.
In his peaceful forests, the heirarchy of nature is turned upside down. Here, the pigs rule. They roam by the thousands beneath the waxy leaves of oak trees, rooting out pound after pound of their prized treat, acorns, until their time comes to be cured into jamón iberico de bellota.
Spanish ham, like Spanish wine, comes in varying quality levels. In the case of cured ham legs, aka jamón, the quality of the ham revolves largely around the breed of the pig and what it eats. Only the purest pigs eating the most natural diets achieve the elite black label of jamón iberico de bellota, or 100% Iberian acorn-fed ham.
As Faustino proudly explained, the careful process of making jamón iberico de bellota –the highest grade of cured ham in Spain – starts with a family tree. The elite pigs he uses to make some of Guijelo’s top hams are required by law to be pure bred Iberians, a breed celebrated for its subtle flavors, delicate texture and remarkable marbling.
Guijuelo is the largest of four regulated ham making regions in Spain, sending 250,000 hams to market each year. These quality control zones work much like a Denomination of Origin in wine, setting standards for how the pigs are raised, slaughtered and cured.
In Guijuelo, those high standards mean that wild-looking, black hoofed hogs live a life most pigs can only dream of. There are no cramped pig pins or overcrowded feed houses here. The Iberian pigs of these parts roam freely through oak forests, gobbling up as much of the native vegetation as their bellies can hold. From November through February that largely means acorns.
These brown nuts, hardly larger than a hazelnut, are like gold in Guijuelo. Without them, it would be impossible to make the jamón iberico de bellota that has made this region famous. Acorns’ high fat content creates rich, flavor-packed ribbons of fat throughout the hams while the fatty acids tenderize the meat, making Iberian acorn-fed hams literally melt in your mouth.
Eating so many acorns (Iberian pigs will chomp 500-600 kilos of acorns in a season!) also pack the hams with antioxidants, keeping the meat from spoiling over its long 2+ year curing process.
The magic begins in December when the hulking pigs – fattened with acorns over the past two months to upwards of 200 pounds – are delivered to Faustino’s factory. Truckloads full of halved pigs are swung into the dicing room where the hind quarters are cut away from the rest of the meat, which will become sausages and steaks.
For the first time, these hams start to look like the quintessential hanging legs I see in bars and restaurants throughout Spain.
The fresh hams are then stacked into the salting room where course salt is shoveled over them like snow until only the black hoof at the end of the leg is visible. They’ll stay here for about two weeks before the salt is washed off and they pass into the curing chamber.
From there, it’s a waiting game. Thousands of hams dangle from floor to ceiling in the massive curing rooms at Faustino Prieto slowly shrinking and sweating. Black ropes distinguish the 100 percent Iberian acorn-fed hams from their mixed-breed counterparts, all of which will hang here for at least two years before going to market.
The pigs’ natural diets and Iberian genes means these hams will fetch the highest prices, upwards of 30 euros per kilo (roughly $15 per pound) when sold whole. Sliced jamón goes for much more.
To cut one ham by hand takes a professional ham slicer (yes, that’s a career!) half a day and costs Faustino 100€. While hand slicing is often considered the only proper way to cut such good ham, Faustino disagrees.
“It’s just theater,” he tells me as we head out of the curing room. His preferred method? Chop off a thumb-thick slice, slap it into the fold of a baguette and “just let it melt in your mouth.”
Logistics: The best way to get to Guijuelo is by car. It is about a 30 minute drive from Salamanca or a 2.5 hour drive west of Madrid. There are also buses that run from Salamanca to Guijuelo. To visit one of the many ham factories in Guijuelo, be sure to call ahead and book a visit!
Have you ever tasted 100 percent Iberian acorn-fed ham? Do you think it lives up to the hype?