Eric Boucher - 2011-05-09
Heir to a centuries-old tradition and scion of four generations of Iberian Ham producers, José Gómez has raised Joselito ham to the exclusive echelon of the finest gourmet foods. We visited his establishment in Extremadura.
It is not easy to track down Iberian pigs in their natural element. José Gómez drives a powerful Range Rover that scurries up steep slopes and down dirt paths in search of the noble beast, but there’s nary a hog in sight. As the sun rises above the Finca El Coto del Rey, a light mist floats in the hollows and the glowing rays of dawn light illumine the landscape like the first morning of creation.
On José’s 1,500-hectare finca (farm), rich green prairies and millions of oak trees stretch as far as the eye can see. The hogs are there, invisible, hidden by trees and the uneven terrain. José stops his car and a few burly fellows jump down from two jeeps that have been following us. They stride behind the trees and suddenly we hear some onomatopoeias and guttural click-clicks in the distance, followed by a rustling noise, the light sound of hoofs and a few snorts. Snouts in the air, several dozen visibly timid pigs move towards us, though they always keep a safe distance.
The coat is dark and the hoof is black, giving the hog the informal name pata negra. This is a misnomer since there are black-hoofed pigs in other parts of Europe, including Corsica, the French Bigorra and the Basque region. The preferred term is ibérico pig, a breed further distinguished by its lifestyle, as ibéricos roam freely in immense dehesa. These wooded pasturelands planted with cork, holm and sessile oaks are residual ecosystems of the ancient Mediterranean forest.
Providing that the Iberian pig has been raised on a completely natural diet of grasses, acorns (bellotas) and aromatic plants native to the pasturelands, the ham produced is awarded the label Jamón ibérico de bellota (Iberian acorn ham), the Rolls-Royce of all hams. It is throughout the Montanera season from October to March during the final phase of their lives that they stuff themselves with bellotas (10-11 kilograms per day). Their meat acquires an incomparable flavour at this time.
I pick up an oblong acorn different from the small acorns of our northern forests and bite into it; the taste resembles that of a chestnut. It takes a quarter of a century for an oak to produce acorns. In order to preserve this unique ecosystem (certain trees here are said to be nearly a thousand years old), José plants 80,000 oaks per year.
Acclaimed by the world’s greatest chefs, from Juan MariArzak to Alain Ducasse and from Martin Berasategui to Carme Ruscalleda and Ferràn Adrià, Joselito is generally considered to be the world’s best ham. José Gómez has raised the marque to an unparalleled level of excellence, thanks notably to an exclusive curing and aging process and the unprecedented creation of Jamón Joselito vintages, as for wines.
The hams are not produced in the place where the pigs are raised and slaughtered, but in Guijuelo, near Salamanca. Known for its climate - cold and dry in winter and very hot in summer - the area is particularly well-suited to drying and curing ibérico ham. The building where the hams are processed is ultramodern (it somehow reminded us of an advertising agency), but the methods used - sea salt, air drying and no preservatives - are absolutely traditional and 100% natural. Most astonishing are the aging cellars and the creation of vintages. Whereas most bellota hams on the market are 24 to 30 months old, Joselito hams can reach 4, 5, 6 or even 7 years of age! The oldest vintage, and arguably the best, dates from 2004; it could probably be stored for at least eight years. This lengthy aging process intensifies the myriad qualities specific to the individual hams and transforms them into unique pieces. This is an exceptional product with a price to match: the 36-month-old Gran Reserva costs over £ 200 per kilo.
In the UK, one kilo of Gran Reserva costs around £ 200.
You can find bellota ham at gourmet food and delicatessen shops, including Harvey Nichols, Fortnum & Mason and Wholefoods.