We drove to a farm that raises the much-coveted Iberian pig. The journey was beautiful, and the day stunning, simply perfect (or as the Spanish say, perfecto). Roger and I hiked around the farm, looking at the piglets and the mature pigs, encountering on our way a few stray horses who came over to greet us. An old grey gelding took a shine to me and followed us for a stretch. The pigs roam free in large fenced fields--no ghastly industrial farming here--and gorge naturally on acorns in fall, a diet that accounts for the distinctive flavor of the meat. Afterwards we drove to Jabugo, a town famous all over Spain for the processing and curing of the pork. We had a glass of dry sherry in the bar/reception area and, of course, a small plate of the ham to sample. It is sliced so thin as to be almost translucent, and I found this particular ham a far cry from the more salty but still delicious version I had tasted in Madrid. Roger explained how the buttery sweetness indicates a finer quality, a difference I easily detected. We then donned plastic robes and entered the plant. The manager described the curing of the meat, which takes three years from start to finish. As we moved from one floor to another, I saw and smelled the ham in its various stages of processing. Periodically he would insert a large plastic toothpick into the meat and then have me smell it to appreciate the subtle variations in bouquet; by the time we got to the three-year-old ham, the fragrance was fully developed. I learned about the mites that attack the ham, and the careful but natural methods used to stave off infestation. Just before the hams are shipped out, they are cleaned and then brushed liberally with safflower oil. Olive oil, I was told, would compromise the flavor of the meat.
While it was a bit unnerving walking beneath hundreds of ham legs suspended from the ceiling, I certainly appreciated the traditional artisanal techniques and their history. Roger informed me that the Celts first introduced the curing of ham, and their methods were further developed by the Romans after the conquest of Gaulle. I also learned that proper Iberian ham actually lowers cholesterol because of the omega oils and nutrients derived from the ingestion of acorns. Fascinating stuff. When I first saw Iberian ham for sale in Madrid--even of the lesser quality--I gasped at the price. Now I understand the cost given the intensive labor that goes into cultivating the meat over three years. The expense also explains why it's served like a condiment: a few paper-thin slices on bread or atop a cooked dish, almost like shaved truffles.
After we finished, Roger took me to a restaurant owned by some friends in Aracena, a lovely town southwest of Seville. We asked for small portions--I warned Roger I couldn't manage the usual Spanish helpings--but dish after dish came out of the kitchen. The food ranged from fresh goat cheese to eggs with wild mushrooms (and topped with thin slices of the famed ham) to roasted string beans to a secreto of ham, a rich, fatty cut of meat, which was accompanied by artichoke hearts. Fresh strawberries emerged, followed by a fabulous chestnut ice cream. Even though I ate gingerly, I was still sated. We had sampled perhaps seven dishes by the end of the meal.
Roger suggested a hike up a nearby hill to see a thirteenth-century Gothic church, and I was grateful for the exercise. The town of Aracena beckoned below, as did rolling countryside topped by a sky of brilliant blue, the sort of intense color one rarely sees outside of the Mediterranean (or California on a smog-free day). Perfecto.