Eco Tourism 03. The Route of Iberian Ham or Jamón Ibérico
Eco Tourism. Digital Interactive Magazine by Entropía Ediciones, S.L.
Content: The Route of Iberian Ham or Jamón Ibérico
The Route of Iberian Ham or Jamón Ibérico
The product club of the Route of the Iberian Ham
Artisan, traditional and sustainable cuisine
Iberian Ham or jamón ibérico has become very fashionable. The main gourmet chains and prestigious restaurateurs all over the world offer Iberian ham as one of the most exquisite and exclusive products. It is only produced in a few regions on the Iberian peninsula of mainland Spain. The Route of Iberian Ham comes into being as a product of food tourism direct from the countryside and culture of the people along the route.
The product club Route of the Iberian Ham makes it possible for visitors to enjoy a unique experience that consists of visiting the four Protected Designation of Origin areas of Iberian ham production (Dehesa de Extremadura, Jamón de Huelva, Guijuelo and Los Pedroches) that cover three autonomous regions (Castilla y León, Extremadura and Andalucía) and five provinces: Salamanca, Cáceres, Badajoz, Huelva and Córdoba.
Tourists can visit and enjoy the landscape of the dehesa pastures by visiting pig farms, museums and interpretation centres as well as drying sheds so they can see the production process, try and enjoy jamón ibérico in restaurants and shops and find accommodation in these areas. However the Route of Iberian Ham also includes beautiful places, both nature spots as well as historic and cultural sites that mean visitors can enjoy the heritage, world and culture of Iberian ham and the places linked to its production.
Editor in chief
Alberto Álvarez de Perea
José Antonio Sierra
Front Cover Photography
Valle de los Pedroches (Córdoba)
Photography in Flickr
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The breeding and production area on the Route of the Iberian Ham is in the Autonomous Communities of Andalucía, Castilla y León and Extremadura.
These areas are marked out by the Regulating Council of the Designation of Origin of the Iberian ham. Guijuelo, la Dehesa de Extremadura, Jamón de Huelva and Los Pedroches are the four areas with Designation of Origin at present.
In the provinces of Salamanca, Cáceres, Badajoz, Huelva and Córdoba there are 307 towns and villages that are authorised by the Regulating Council to establish drying sheds. These towns and villages make up the “areas of development and fattening” of the Iberian pigs.
The dehesa pastures
Without the dehesa grazing land Iberian ham would not exist. This ecosystem provides the special characteristics that only exist in this wooded pastureland cultivated by man and capable of harmonising human occupation with the conservation of the environment and its sustainable development with agricultural usage.
It is one of the most singular ecosystems in the world that is found in Spain along a strip that runs from Salamanca to Sierra Morena and West Andalucía, although there are more isolated areas in Castilla-La Mancha, Madrid and Castilla y León.
The colours, aromas and sensations immerse us in a nature area with a distinctive and suggestive beauty that invites us to walk through the countryside and enjoy its diverse flora and fauna. You can find 60 different bird species that nest here and over 20 varieties of mammals. The characteristics of the trees make it one of the zones with the greatest biodiversity on the Iberian Peninsula.
It is the ideal place for hiking and biking, on route you will come across an important cultural heritage of noteworthy buildings, farming traditions, castles, megalithic monuments, medieval bridges, Roman roads and many other attractive features.
Architecture in the dehesa pastureland
The civil, religious and folk architecture tells us about life in the dehesa, the beliefs of the people and their social administration. You can still see and visit remains of ancient castles and other defensive forts that date from Moorish times like the watch towers and border posts.
There are many civil buildings dating from the Middle Ages that tell us about the importance of the dehesa pastures in the transhumance of stock between the north and south of the Peninsula. The wool trade, with the fleeces of Merino sheep, required an infrastructure in the dehesa in the form of tracks, roads, paths, bridges and cattle grids.
On the other hand, many shrines were built and dedicated to different saints, to take care of the people and their belongings and where people could go to religious services.
There are many examples of folk architecture for livestock in the dehesa pastures like the “tinaos”, a kind of covered passage, pigsties, corrals, fenced and stone enclosures, huts, wells, waterwheels, etc. The pigsty, for example, protects the pigs from the inclemency of the weather and they are built of stone or clay. Farms, labourers’ cottages, hydraulic constructions and water mills are farm related buildings. In these areas you can see people carrying out traditional tasks like cork harvesting, making charcoal and farming the herds of Iberian pigs.
The Iberian pig
The leading role of this tourism product is an animal that has been symbolic in numerous ancient cultures. The Iberian pig breed dates back 3000 years to be precise, when pigs brought by the Phoenicians from the Middle East were used for cross breeding. The Iberian pig has three breeds: Black, red and the Jabugo pied (Huelva).
The feed is a key factor in Iberian pig farming. After they leave the sow, the piglets are fed on stubble from cereal crops and the sparse remains in the countryside, the most important time is when the pigs graze freely in the dehesa pastures when the acorns begin to fall from the oak trees. This system of traditional fattening is called mountain free range or montanera.
The fattening process consists of letting the pigs graze in the dehesa pasture scattered with acorns from the cork and holm oak groves that are their main food. Depending on weather conditions, the traditional period begins in October to November and finishes in February to March which is when the acorns are ready. The amount of acorns the Iberian pig eats will determine the quality of the final product. It is recommended that each Iberian pig puts on an average of 57.5 kilos.
There are three different systems of fattening the pigs.
- Grain. The pigs eat concentrated commercial feed or meal.
- Free range fattening. The traditional fattening process consists of taking advantage of all the resources of the dehesa pastures.
- Mixed feed or recebo. This term is applied to pigs that have grazed free range but the feed has been made up with grain because there has not been enough acorns.
The quality of the product is guaranteed thanks to the perfect combination between the acorn feed and the exercise the animal does. After the fattening period, three to five months, the pig can fatten up to 57.5 kilos.
Farrowing takes place in June and December and each litter ranges from six to eight piglets. Depending on the season, the pigs are classified in Spain as “yerbizos” (February to March), “agostones” (August) and “marceños” (April to May).
In the rearing period the bases are established for the definite make up of the animal. First of all, the pig with a weight of between 35 and 70 kilos subsequently develops into a fattened pig of between 70 and over 100 kilos.
The fruit of the oak, the holm oak and other trees of the quercus genus make up the staple food of the Iberian breed of pig raised in the dehesa pastures. The acorn is of great importance for feeding the adult pig because it is this that gives the best quality of acorn-cured ham.
The best acorns are the sweet fruits of the oak tree that have a brownish colour and are a delicacy for the Iberian pig that is continuously rooting for acorns in groups. On the other hand, the “not so sweet” acorns serve to put on pork fat and they also give a characteristic taste and aroma to the animal.
A pig fattened extensively in the dehesa pastures eating 10 kg of acorns a day can put on up to a kilo a day. An oak grove dedicated to pig farming can produce between 400 and 900 kg/hectare of acorns a year and an oak around 15 kg a year.
The combination of grass and acorns provides the taste, colour and aroma characteristic of Iberian ham. At the start of the period when the pigs graze freely is when the meat is being produced, this is when the fat begins to marble the meat.
After the free range grazing, the pig is slaughtered in the traditional way or industrially to reduce stress so that the quality of the meat is not affected. At the time of slaughter the blood is used for making cold meats and preserves.
Next it is washed and then cut into hams and shoulders to start the curing process the next day. Before you obtain the Iberian ham, the leg is prepared and part of the fat, skin and meat from the outside is taken away. All this makes the characteristic “V” on the skin.
Although technological innovations have been incorporated into the process, the elaboration of the Iberian ham follows a delicate and traditional selective process. The climate conditions during the curing process (drying shed and cellar) make the product unique and famous all over the world.
Curing stages of Iberian ham
- Salting. The hams are soaked in brine at a low temperature (between 1º-5ºC) with humidity of 80%-90% for 9 to 14 days.
- Rinsing. This process gets rid of the salt attached to the outside of the ham. It also eliminates any remaining traces of blood.
- Post salting. Depending on the size and weight of the hams, the normal time is between 60 and 75 days and can even be extended to 90. The slow penetration of the salt into the muscles continues. The hams are kept at temperatures between 3º and 6º C with humidity of 80%-90%.
- Drying. It is dried by controlled air circulation for three to seven months to achieve the final stabilization of the ham. The humidity slowly disappears with this process. At a higher temperature (15º-30ºC) an even distribution of the fat is acquired and this gives rise to the taste and aroma of the ham.
- Drying and curing in cellars. It is the final stage of the process and it consists in hanging in the still air, at temperatures between 10º and 20ºC with room humidity of 60% to 80%. The fungus that appears on the outside of the ham provides the characteristic smell of the Iberian ham. The minimum stay in the cellar depends on weight and varies between 6 and 18 months.
Depending on the weight of the ham, the total process time to get an Iberian ham in perfect condition and ready to eat is from 20 to 24 months.
Parts of the Iberian ham
- “Maza”. This is the most succulent part where most of the meat is and where you normally begin to cut and use the ham.
- “Contramaza”. Opposite side to the “maza”. This part has very little fat.
- “Babilla”. This is the least juicy part of the Iberian ham between the tibia and the femur. The experts recommend you start to use this part of the ham first if you are going to use it slowly to make sure it does not lose its smell and taste.
- “Punta”. Top end of the ham. Tasty with a lot of fat. More salty if it has not been protected by a yellow coat of fat.
- Shank. The meat around the trotter is hard, stringy and has a lot of oil. Very good for small pieces of ham for cooking stews.
Utensils for carving
Carving the ham follows precise rites so you get all the flavour. At different fairs and festivals celebrated around ham there are carving competitions with very good prizes. This is why the utensils should be carefully chosen.
- Professional ham knife. A ham knife should have a long, narrow blade that is good and sharp to cut thin slices.
- Short carving knife. Short and narrow with a strong blade so you can make slits and to cut round bones when necessary.
- Fillet knife. Wide, medium width and resistant blade. Used to cut off the skin.
- Knife sharpener. It eliminates small nicks and keeps each knife perfectly sharpened.
- The ham stand. It makes it easy to turn the ham and carve in a straight line keeping the cut level.
First of all. Before cleaning the ham, you make a deep cut (4 cm.) at the hock by the shank. Afterwards you proceed to cut off the skin and fat.
Where to start. If you are going to eat the ham within 3 days you start to carve the ham at the meatiest part, “la maza”. On the other hand, if you are going to eat the ham at home you should start at the “babilla”.
Preparation. Once you have removed the top part of the ham you go on to take the skin off the sides.
Slicing. You use the ham knife for this. The slices should be very thin and medium sized. You should carve all the parts of the ham to get more out of it. When you get to the bone, you should make a clean cut to separate the meat from the bone keeping the meat level so that the slices come off easily.
Turning the ham over. When the slices get down to the femur it is time to turn it over and place it on the ham stand with the trotter facing down.
Finishing off. You should carve all the meat from all over the ham so that the bones are clean
Conservation. You should keep the ham in a cool dry place covering the parts of the ham that have been carved with slices of the ham’s own fat and then cover it with a cloth.
There are professional trade fairs, gastronomic events, congresses and local festivals centred around Iberian ham in the areas all along Route that give ham a festive quality that attracts thousands of visitors.
Meat Industry Fair in Guijuelo
At the beginning of June the Meat Industry Fair is held in Guijuelo (Salamanca) with its 16th edition in 2014, a showcase for the leading brands in the sector where you can try their products; it is a meeting place for professionals and trade people, providing the fair with great commercial value. The festival dedicated to the Traditional Pig Slaughtering has been declared to be of Tourist Interest and it is held in Guijuelo on the last weekend of January and every weekend in February when visitors can try the produce.
Montánchez gastronomic festival
Every December there is a gastronomic festival in Montánchez (Cáceres), one of the cradles of Iberian ham, a Gastronomic festival when the local people take part in the pig slaughtering rite and also a chance to try the different pork products.
Iberian Ham Show in Jerez de los Caballeros
In May, one of the most prestigious events takes place in Jerez de los Caballeros (Badajoz) centred around ham and the route: the Iberian Ham Show, a monographic event that has quality ham playing the leading role with at least 150 stands. There are ham slicing competitions, gastronomic events and ham tasting. Visitors can see and try the products offered on the numerous stands.
Day of Ham in Monesterio
In Monesterio (Badajoz), where there is also a Ham Museum, each September (the first week), a gastronomic day is organised which attracts over 10.000 people from all over Spain to visit the stands where they can try typical products like ham, pork loin, Iberian ham shoulder. Around this day there are ham sampling, competitions for the best ham slicer, cycling routes, technical workshops and other leisure activities.
Ham and Iberian Pig Regional Fair
During the third weekend in October each year, the Ham and Iberian Pig Regional Fair is held in Aracena (Huelva) it is a meeting place that serves as a forum for debate on Iberian pork products for the pig farming sector. There are varied activities: a competition for the best ham slicer, a raffle for "your weight in ham", you can try products from the pig slaughter, etc. An excellent opportunity to visit the Ham Museum.
Trade Fair of acorn-fed Iberian Ham in Los Pedroches
Another great fair centred around Iberian ham is held in the month of October in Villanueva de Córdoba, one of the towns that forms part of the Protected Designation of Origin area of Los Pedroches (Córdoba). It is the Trade Fair of acorn-fed Iberian ham in Los Pedroches. The fair includes a competition for the best ham slicer, approved by the Spanish Association of Ham Carvers and the Competition for the best acorn-fed Iberian ham from Los Pedroches.
Tourist Routes through the areas of Protected Designation of Origin of Iberian ham
Route through Protected Designation of Origin Guijuelo
The centre of the Iberian ham industry in this district is Guijuelo, a town with around 6 000 inhabitants, roughly three quarters of the population work in the meat industry. There are at least 50 businesses and 300 brand names of ham. There is a Museum dedicated to the cured meat industry so you can get to know the traditional industry, the mainstay of the district, better.
Miranda del Castañar is a lovely Medieval town, it has been an Artistic Historic Complex since 1973, with city walls and noble mansions houses made of wood and granite. Sotoserrano, a spectacular nature area that invites you to stroll through its grounds.
La Alberca was the first village to receive the Artistic Historic Monument distinction in 1940.
The nature in this district is ideal for hiking, it is part of the Biosphere Reserve of the Sierras de Béjar y Francia, Las Batuecas Nature Park and Sierra de Francia and the protected Nature Area of Sierra de las Quilamas.
Béjar, as well as being a very beautiful monumental place, has a ski resort (La Covatilla) and a historic centre called El Bosque.
4 kilometres from Béjar you come to the town Candelario, another place not to miss on this Iberian Ham Route, another Artistic Historic Complex since 1975 because of its traditional mountain architecture.
The Route of the Dehesas de Extremadura through the province of Cáceres
La Dehesa de Extremadura, with almost 2.2 million hectares, is one of the most singular ecosystems on the Iberian Peninsula. Most of this area is made up of grazing land with oak groves.
Montánchez (Cáceres) is the centre of this route. An ancient town that dates back to the Bronze Age, the tradition of curing hams also goes back centuries, with historic references since 1236. Tradition tells that Carlos V, when he retired to Yuste, enjoyed ham from Montánchez.
Cáceres has extensive countryside where the Iberian pig reigns and this is why there are many districts on this route: La Jara with the ruins of Augustobriga; La Vera where the monastery of Yuste is situated, where Carlos V retired; the Jerte valley with exquisite cherry trees, a compulsory stop when they are in flower; the Ambroz valley with the outstanding town of Hervás and the chestnut groves; the Alagón valley presided by the monumental town of Coria; Tajo-Salor-Almonte with the spectacular Roman bridge of Alcántara; Monfragüe and the surrounding area with its Nature Park where you can bird watch and the unforgettable town of Plasencia; Miajadas-Trujillo, fertile land and the cradle of conquistadors who built splendid palaces; or Villuercas with the emblematic town of Guadalupe, one of the most famous pilgrim destinations in Spain.
Route of the Dehesas de Extremadura through the province of Badajoz
The beauty of the countryside here does not only centre on the Iberian pigs, but also on the impressive mixture of monuments and nature.
Monesterio and Jerez de los Caballeros are production centres of Iberian ham from the dehesas of Extremadura in Badajoz that cover a large and varied geographic area.
The districts of Olivenza, Campiña Sur, la Serena, Sierra de San Pedro Los Baldíos, Zafra Río Bodión, Sierra Suroeste and Tierra de Barros offer some of the most beautiful countryside for Iberian pig farming, although it is also famous for its cheese, wine and delicious beef that also have their own protected designation of origin.
Other places we have not to forget on a food tourism route through the province of Badajoz are Fregenal de la Sierra, with a Templar Knights past; Monesterio with a good offer of restaurants, and where they celebrate a Ham Festival that attracts a lot of visitors; Calera de León, seat of the Knights of Santiago with its impressive Conventual; or Zafra with a magnificent historic centre.
Route through the Protected Designation of Origin area of Iberian ham in Huelva
Huelva Ham is a protected designation of origin of Iberian ham. It is very well known ham because of its texture, aroma and particular distinguished taste with its centre in Jabugo (Huelva) in the heart of the Sierra de Aracena and Picos de Aroche Nature Park and it is a part of the dehesas of Sierra Mornea and as such a Reserve of the Biosphere.
Although Jabugo is a small village it has great charm and most of its inhabitants work in the Iberian ham and cooked meats industry.
However the Sierra de Aracena has a lot more charms than just its cuisine.
Almonaster la Real, surrounded by forest, has the most beautiful rural mosque of its kind; Cortegana has its impressive castle; Cumbres Mayores is proud of its outstanding fortress, at the same time it has famous drying sheds where the Iberian ham is cured.
Galaroza, Aroche, Linares de la Sierra, Fuenteheridos, in fact any of these places is worth a leisurely visit. La Peña de Arias Montano is the site of the Sanctuary dedicated to Our Lady of Angels from where there are fantastic views of the mountains.
In Aracena, besides the charms of the village, like the Templar castle and the Plaza del Marqués de Aracena, there is one of nature’s wonders: la Gruta de las Maravillas, one of the most attractive tourist caves in Spain.
Although the Iberian pig farming goes on in the mountain areas, Huelva has a unique heritage and natural wealth that demands an unhurried visit. Its beaches attract numerous visitors and the protected nature in Doñana are attractions worth mentioning.
Route through the Protected Designation of Origin area of Iberian ham in Los Pedroches
North of Córdoba, once you have crossed the mountains – going over the mythical Calatraveño mountain pass that Marqués de Santillana sung about in his Serranillas type flamenco songs-, a landscape of gentle hills and oak grove unfolds, a land cut out of granite.
Los Pedroches valley has a thick aroma of history that is still intact in its monuments, landscapes and mountain nature; in its delicious cuisine; its game; its leafy and romantic walks; and in its ageless traditions. In Fuente Obejuna, every year in August, Lope de Vega’s famous play is staged (Fuenteovejuna) about the local people who united to make a front against tyranny.
Hinojosa del Duque and Villanueva de Córdoba have a long standing ham tradition and Pozoblanco, the capital of the district, is the great stock cooperative of Andalucía.
It is the most extensive area of dehesa pasture as well as the best conserved on the Iberian Peninsula covering 424 000 hectares. However besides its natural riches, the city of Córdoba is only a few kilometres away, with its emblematic monuments, like the Mosque and the Roman bridge that attract visitors from all over the world.