Cinco Jotas bodega has been raising Ibérico pigs and producing some of the world’s finest and most expensive cured hams for the last 130 years. On a recent trip to Spain, they gave me a tour of the pastures and introduced me to the very special pigs that give us the incredible Cinco Jotas jamón de bellota.
Not all jamón Ibérico is created equal. The black-skinned Ibérico pigs are descendants of the Mediterranean wild boar. They are black right down to their cloven hooves, which is where the term “pata negra” comes from. Pure Ibérico pigs are rare, breeding rarely and in small litters, which partially explains why their meat is so expensive and also why many farmers crossbreed them with other, more “productive,” varieties–not so at Cinco Jotas, which uses only 100 percent Ibérico pigs and tracks the lineage of each and every one.
But to be 100 percent Ibérico is not enough to be a Cinco Jotas pig. The difference is all in the bellota, the Spanish word for acorn. Cinco Jotas pigs eat them from October to March, during what is known as the montanera season, when the glistening chocolate-brown fruits fall to the ground. The acorn’s secret is in its high-fat content and level of oleic acid, the same found in olive oil, which makes its way into the pig’s tissues to work its magic. Only 5% of all pigs are 100% Ibérico, acorn-fed pigs, so you can see why they are so special. (See the video I took during my visit..)
At Cinco Jotas, it all starts in the thousand-year-old woodlands of the Iberian Peninsula. Pigs are raised on farms known as dehesas, traditional Spanish pasture lands planted with acorn and cork trees. These vast rambling stretches of tree-dotted hills and valleys give the pigs plenty of room—five acres per pig to be exact—to roam free, snuffling and rooting for the all-important bellota, which they can consume in quantities of up to ten kilos a day. During the montanera, the pigs can gain up to 2 pounds of fat a day. They spend their time roaming shady green forest pastures, travelling up to 14 kilometers to find acorns. All that exercise contributes to their unique intramuscular structure, which results in perfectly marbled fat and muscle essential for long, quality curing.
While they live a free-range life, the pigs are not abandoned to the wild. They are carefully monitored by veterinarian and farming professionals to ensure they stay in good health and that they are developing the right amount of oleic-acid-rich fat for curing. After 18 to 24 months, when the pigs have reached roughly 360 pounds, the idyllic time on the dehesas must come to an end.
But even death comes gently to Cinco Jotas pigs. They are not killed, but rather “sacrificed.” When a pig is deemed ready for slaughter, it is put to sleep with CO2 and then its throat is cut. The prized legs are skinned, salted, rinsed, and dried before being sent for curing. In Spanish tradition, the sacrifice or “matzana” was a family event. The pig would be divided into various parts and made into chorizo, salchichón and other sausages, while the legs would be rolled in sea salt and hung to dry in the mountain air.
Today, Cinco Jotas follows this traditional process, but in a more controlled way. The pigs that wander the hills of the dehesas end up curing in the town of Jabugo, located in UNESCO heritage site Aracena y Picos de Aroche Natural, where the mountain climate, warm but tempered by cool breezes, is perfect for curing and the air is full of the right micro-organisms to get the job done. There, the hams spend up to five years in the brick-walled cellar before being evaluated by “noses” who determine if they are up to quality standards. The relatively simple process involves poking a large needle down to the bone and inhaling the odor released. Until then, each ham is surveyed by a “profiler” who ensures that it is not drying too quickly or too slowly.
Jamón de bellota is the only kind of ham that can undergo such a long curing process and it all comes back to diet and lifestyle. The months spent eating acorns transform the svelte little piglets into fat-marbled beasts with a firmness of muscle that only a free-range lifestyle can produce. You could even say that Ibérico ham is healthy ham. Surprised? The oleic acid in the acorns and the long curing process break the saturated fats down into mono-unsaturated, or “good” fat.
After visiting the dehesas, I was invited to taste the product of this generations-old tradition. Even carving a leg of Ibérico for tasting is an artisan act… The fat is so silky and smooth, it melts in your mouth, and on a hot day, in your hand. You can’t just cut into a leg of jamón de bellota any which way. Cinco Jotas master carvers are trained to slice ham so that every ounce of flavour and aroma is retained. Biting into a translucent slice of muscle and fat, I could taste the sweet nuttiness of acorns, but also a hint of the earthy pasture and a life well-lived tended by generations of compassionate savoir-faire.