A true aficionado embarks on a quest for the best jamón in the world
“Are you tired of jamón yet?” a man said to me at a restaurant in Madrid, after I admitted to eating jamón ibérico for fourteen days straight. “Never!” I chuckled. My addiction to jamón started in 2008 during my first adventure to Spain by way of intrigue over a neighbor’s plate of super-glossy, thinly sliced cured meat at a restaurant in Barcelona. I identified it as jamón ibérico on a menu, ordered it, and the rest was history.
I can still remember the exotic feeling in my mouth, unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced. Years later I was introduced to Cinco Jotas, the most exquisite jamón ibérico purveyors in Spain, by way of chef Katie Button and Félix Meana at Cúrate in Asheville. Meana, from Roses, a small town on the Costa Brava in Catalonia, Spain, grew up eating a lot of jamón.
“We ate different breeds and brands but always looked to Cinco Jotas for special occasions,” he says. “Jamón ibérico is our most precious treasure in Spain and the one we are most proud of.” Cúrate plows through, on average, 25 to 30 legs a month, including paleta (shoulder and front leg) and bone-in jamón (the back leg).
So, What Makes Jamón Special?
Cinco Jotas’ ham is on another level of pleasure when it comes to ham eating. As its name implies, it’s five-star—nutty, juicy, salty, creamy, and rich in every single delicately carved slice, which basically melts in the mouth.
“Cinco Jotas has a very unique and authentic flavor that is not comparable even with other hams in Spain,” Meana says. Theirs is jamón ibérico de bellota—meaning the pigs are 100-percent pure Iberian, free range, and acorn-fattened. Just like for Champagne, there are strict guidelines for jamón ibérico de bellota.
Still curious as to how and why it tastes so damn good, I spontaneously extended a Madrid flight last spring in an effort to head to Jabugo in southwest Spain—a village situated in the Sierra de Aracena and Picos de Aroche—to the land of Iberian pigs. I visited Cabezo del Gato, where 25 of Cinco Jotas’ famous black-hooved pigs (pata negra in Spanish) freely roam in a 50,000-square-meter dehesa (pasture), feasting on acorns from holm oak, cork oak, and gall oak trees. I learned that by Spanish law, there must be 8,750 square meters of space per pig; however, Cinco Jotas requires at least 20,000 square meters.
During the Montanera season, the pigs walk up to 14 kilometers per day in search of tasty acorns, a diet that no doubt gives the jamón such a distinct flavor. Cinco Jotas legs age a minimum of 36 months, often longer, depending on the size of the ham, breed, aging conditions, and many other factors—so one leg takes anywhere from three to five years to produce.
During this time there are crucial steps of shaping, curing, drying, and “cala”—a rigorous process where a “ham sniffer” sticks an instrument into the ham to deem it ready (or not). As the brand’s quality-control chief and the first female cellar master, Cristina Sánchez Blanco has a nose in high demand.
Seeing the pigs in their natural habitat put a sense of place in my head; once you understand this, along with the aging process in a centuries-old curing cellar in Jabugo, it’s easy to understand why these legs cost hundreds of dollars. It’s still a technique to preserve meat, but nowadays jamón ibérico de bellota is a coveted bite.
Who Needs Spain When You Have the South?
Truth be told, no one can replicate jamón ibérico de bellota outside of that specific area of Spain, but what if I told you there are jamón-like products in the South? My obsession led me to Sam Suchoff, the brains behind Lady Edison Pork and the Pig in Chapel Hill. I tasted Suchoff’s thinly sliced Lady Edison Extra Fancy country ham at Mateo in Durham and did a double take. This was not the country ham I grew up with.
The salty, robust, buttery cured slice tasted like a serrano ham but with 100-percent Southern terroir. The ham is a three-way heritage cross between Berkshire, Chester White, and Duroc hogs pasture-raised in North Carolina sans hormones or antibiotics—showcasing multigenerational tradition and vetted farmers. The hams are then aged 18 to 24 months by Goodnight Brothers in Boone, North Carolina.
The History and Heritage of Ham
“Both jamón ibérico and country ham were born of the necessity to preserve the flesh of an animal killed in winter so there would be protein to eat later in the year,” Suchoff says. “Jamón ibérico eventually became more than a sustenance food in Spain, but the same was not true for country ham,” he says, waxing that country ham was never a prized food item and has always been associated with being cheap. A meat-loving friend suggested I get my paws on Col. Bill Newsom’s Aged Kentucky Country Hams, led by Nancy Newsom Mahaffey—the only woman in charge of a major country ham operation in the US—as they’re constantly being compared to Italy’s prosciutto.
“If there is no jamón or sherry in heaven, I am not going,”
With similar old-world aging techniques (and old-school sales brochures), this ham is a real treat. In the future, brands like Lady Edison Pork and Col. Bill Newsom’s Aged Kentucky Country Ham hope to put country ham in the same respect category as its Old World European cousins.
Back stateside, I now quench my addiction on both the North Carolina ham of my home and on the jamón ibérico at Cúrate. “If there is no jamón or sherry in heaven, I am not going,” Meana jokes.
I completely agree.