My Travel Monkey’s guest writer Rebecca Mahoney shares her experience of a ham safari in Jamón Iberico’s famous home, Extremadura, in Western Spain
When I told friends and family I was off on a ham safari I’d never seen so many puzzled faces. Like Peter Kay discovering “garlic bread” for the first time – “Come again? A safari of… ham?!” – the concept seemed baffling. But my fellow meat-lovers’ eyes widened with glee when I explained how I’d be travelling around Spain, eating ham, drinking wine and eating more ham.
But I’m not talking any old ham; this is the rich, ruby-red, melt-in-your-mouth stuff that cries out to be washed down with a lip-smacking vino. Jamón Ibérico is Spain’s very-own national treasure and arguably one of the world’s finest foodstuffs. After living in Madrid in my late-20s, I can’t get enough of it, yet I know little about the processes behind it so I jumped at the chance to visit the region of Extremadura in western Spain, where many producers and exporters are based.
Known for its vast oak-filled forests called the Dehesa, Extremadura is home to the famous black Ibérico pigs, known locally as “pata negra” due to their signature black hooves. These porkers are raised mostly on a diet of grain, wild grass and herbs, but for the finer ham, “bellotas” (acorns) are introduced into their diet during a period called “Montenera”, which is usually from October to January.
They’re then left to roam free and forage for acorns, and this exercise helps build up their leg and shoulder muscles while oils from the acorns infiltrate the meat, creating a rich flavour and that lovely marbled effect. De Bellota can cost twice as much as normal Jamón Ibérico but boy can you taste the difference!
Hacienda Arroyo La Plata
My safari began with a 9.00am pick-up from our pretty and peaceful hotel, Hacienda Arroyo La Plata, which is a two-hour drive from Seville airport and situated near the historical town of Jerez de los Caballeros.
This 15-room hotel is set in a protected bird reserve near the Ardila River and it also caters for guests with disabilities, with wheelchair ramps and signs in Braille among its many facilities. Plus, the adjacent restaurant serves up traditional dishes with local ingredients and the terrace is an ideal spot to watch the setting sun while sipping a cool cerveza.
Ham Safaris in Extremadura
There are a number of ham safari operators in the area but I went with Geoactiva, who also offer a Castle Safari and an intriguingly titled Bull Safari (next time!). After a 20-minute drive in a comfortable 4×4 we arrived at a sprawling farm where droves of chunky black pigs were snaffling beneath oak trees, and just as we pulled up on the driveway, we witnessed a cow giving birth! This farm was the real deal.
Our guide Marco helped translate as the tour operators, a couple of former engineers who switched careers after the financial crisis, guided us down a winding dirt track through the misty Dehesa. It was just like what you’d expect from any other safari, except these animals wouldn’t rip your face off if you step foot out of the car! We did venture out to meet the porkers, and also chatted with the farmer who was tending to a sty full of piglets destined to be the traditional dish of “cochinillo asado” (roast suckling pig). These guys were being fed only their mothers’ milk before slaughter at four-five weeks old, but I wanted to take this one home…
Next stop, the ham-curing factory, Monte Porrino. We were handed rather unglamorous gowns and protective booties for our tour of this extensive warehouse, taking in everything from slaughtering machines to drying, salting and hanging rooms. It was pig-free at this point, thankfully, but it was still a warts-and-all, access-all-areas tour so perhaps not ideal for those with a sensitive stomach and obviously a definite no-no for vegetarians!
It is fascinating for anyone interested in the ham process, though, as you hear all about how the meat is washed, dried and salted, plus the final stage of curing, which involves leaving natural flora to develop on the surface for up to three years. We also learnt how other parts of the pig are used for cured products including chorizo and lomo (tenderloin).
So after purchasing a few meaty presents in the shop at Monte Porrino we headed to one of their rustic “casa rurales” just a short drive away, where a huge picnic (included in the price) awaited us in a quaint garden while meat sizzled on the BBQ.
A qualified “cortador” (cutter) pitched up with her ham-holder and specialist knives on the next table and explained her technique as she expertly sliced slivers off a giant, glistening leg. What I didn’t realise is that this bit is just as important as the whole farming and curing process. Mess it up and it’ll taste just plain wrong. No pressure then!
Of course, I had to have a go at slicing despite warnings from Marco: “Don’t ruin the ham!”. Erm, too late! (Tip: Always cut AWAY from yourself). You could actually taste the cortador’s 13 years’ experience in her delicate, wafer-thin slices compared to our chewy, jagged-edged slabs.
Nonetheless, with the sun just starting to filter through the surrounding oak trees, it was an idyllic finale for an undeniably interesting day. But aside from learning about my favourite food’s journey from farm to table, this experience was a great way to explore a little-known area of a country that in recent years has become a go-to gastronomy destination.
Sure, you can venture into one of the local tapas bars and sample the goods, but this trip delivers a unique culinary adventure for the more curious foodie out there. There’s just one basic holiday essential: you have to really like ham.
* Rebecca went on behalf of My Travel Monkey as a guest of Extremadura Tourism. All her opinions are her own