The cool, dry air that fans the foothills of the Gredos mountains in western Spain helps create the ideal climate for curing the exquisite Spanish hams known as Jamon Iberico de Bellota. And if you insist on curing Jamon Iberico for 6 full years before sale, you’ll understand just how critical this particular climate is.
Six years is exactly what Pedro Robles mandates. Not a day less.
Pedro Robles, a 3rd generation craftsman making Jamon Iberico, stands in a blue jump suit and white apron, scarf tied around his neck, awaiting us in the parking lot of his family’s matadero y secadero (slauterhouse and drying room) which overlooks the village of Jarandilla de la Vera. It’s a sunny but cold morning. Patches of white snow can be spotted in the rocky mountains above the facility. Down below, the grey towers of the castle where Emperor Charles V lived rise above the village, and further down the dry plains of Extremadura glisten under the morning sun. We’re about to enter Pedro’s facility where Jamon Iberico, Jamon Serrano and other typical Spanish pork products are crafted – from the live animal to the end product.
Pedro leads us around the corner of the facility to look onto a truck that has just rolled in. On board are dozens of young, dark grey pigs.
“We just returned from Guadalupe early this morning where we picked up the pigs.” These animals roamed the plains just beneath these hills, in the forests of encina trees. “See how fit and healthy and clean these pigs are? These Iberico pigs are what we call ‘black hair’ pigs, and we only slaughter them in the winter, after they’ve eaten acorns throughout the Fall. They have a good life; they move freely under the encina trees, eating the acorns, or bellotas, that fall to the ground. I’ve known them practically since they were born!”
Pedro Robles is one of the few artisan-level producers of Jamon Iberico who travels around his native land of Extremadura to personally select the best pigs for his jamones, chorizos, lomos, and other pork meat products. “The larger companies usually buy the pork already slaughtered, but not us” says Pedro, shaking both his head and his finger. “We intimately want to know the raw material we are going to work with. We want to have total control: we slaughter, we cure, and we produce the hams ourselves all under this roof. This is the only way to have complete quality control. We also produce fresh cuts of pork meat, as well as what you call bacon in America,” Pedro chuckles.
Pedro’s grandfather, Domingo, and his father, Pedro Senior, passed the business and the tradition to the younger Pedro. “Of course we can’t sell large volumes because we’re a small family business. But at least we can still be proud of our product, unlike many others who have chosen to cut corners to sell to mass markets. Our customers know what a good Jamon Iberico de Bellota is when they see it. And we want to offer them the same quality that they’ve always enjoyed here in Spain. Our customers are very picky and they know what is authentic. I want to continue with our family tradition, and one of these days I would like to introduce our quality to American gourmands.”
So, why is it so important to know your pigs?
Many claim their ham is Iberico de Bellota, but often this is not true. We can be sure because we know where and how the animals are raised and we have personal relationships with the farmers.
Jamon Serrano is also very good, but it is a different breed, the “white” pig. The rest of the process is essentially the same, but the breed makes all the difference.
As we walk into the facility, Pedro explains that the pigs in the truck would be brought into the facility to be slaughtered the following day. “We use a humane method of slaughtering. We gas them in such a way to get them drowsy, like a sort of anesthesia. This way they stay absolutely calm which is critical because if they become nervous, it will actually show up in the quality of the meat. We want to avoid the release of hormones, and for that they need to remain calm and carefree all along the way.”
During the tour, we saw hundreds of hams buried under piles of raw salt and many more hanging from ropes high above our heads in temperature-controlled ham cellars. There are several such cellars, each dedicated to a particular curing duration.
Pedro proudly shows us the one where his premier, top-of-the line Jamon Iberico de Bellota will be patiently resting through its 6-year wait.
Pedro then takes us to the store where packaged and labeled hams and other products are on display. He lifts a piece of cloth from a leg of ham propped on a dedicated wood structure, and with a special knife slices very thin pieces for us to taste. “A good ham has to look like this….” The meat is of a bright red wine color, lean yet oily, and with fine lines of white fat marbling through the slices.
Delicious, amazingly refined, and surprisingly neither salty nor dry. The only thing missing is a piece of bread and a glass of red wine. Time to walk down to the village for a late morning aperitivo at the local bar in front of the church square, where they serve Pedro’s hams with local Extremeñan wines.
In the USA people often say that a glass of red wine a day is good for the heart. In Spain, some proclaim that the oily fat of a good cured Jamon Iberico dissolves bad cholesterol even better.
Maybe the obvious solution is: have them both!