Arturo Sanchez ham salting

Issue No. 97: Jamón Ibérico de bellota from Arturo Sanchez

Even among the most exceptional foods, there are a few makers that go beyond the standard. There’s Champagne, and then there’s vintage Dom Perignon. There’s Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, and then there’s Valserena. There’s jamón Ibérico de bellota—the crown jewel of Spanish cured ham—and then there’s Arturo Sanchez.

It all starts in Guijuelo.

The town of Guijuelo (pronounced gwee-hooay-loh) is in western Spain, about half an hour south of Salamanca, or two and a half hours west of Madrid. About 5,000 people live there. Almost all of them work with Iberico pork, either for a slaughterhouse or a ham maker. Ham is so synonymous with Guijuelo that a few years ago, the local soccer team’s jerseys featured a disorienting pattern of photos of slices of ham. (I wonder if the dizzying pattern gave them an advantage on the field?)

It wasn’t always this way. Just a couple generations ago, most Spanish families would cure a ham or two for themselves at home in the attic, but there wasn’t so much of a ham industry, per se. Back in the 1970s, there were only a half-dozen commercial ham makers in Guijuelo. But after the fall of the Franco regime in 1975, Spanish families started to become wealthier. With more money to spend on food, the demand for meat grew. If Americans dreamed of a chicken in every pot, in Spain they wished for a ham on every counter. Starting in the mid-1980s, more and more ham makers started setting up production in Guijuelo. Today, there are around 200. The largest operations churn out more than a million hams per year.

Remarkably, though so many hams are cured in Guijuelo, the best pigs aren’t raised nearby. Instead, the famous, black, pata negra heritage-breed pigs used to make jamón Ibérico at Arturo Sanchez come from 250 miles south, in the forested pastures—dehesas—around Seville. In autumn, huge oaks drop boatloads of acorns. The period when the acorns—bellotas—fall in the dehesa is so important that the Spanish have a name for it: the montanera. During the montanera, the pigs gobble up the acorns as quick as they fall. The pigs that are sacrificed at the end of the montanera produce the most coveted of all Ibérico pork, called Ibérico de bellota. It’s renowned in Spain because the high fat content of the nuts creates rich, intramuscular fat in the pigs. That fat gives cured Ibérico de bellota pork its astonishing, melt-on-your-tongue texture.

If it’s not about local pigs, why is there so much ham production in Guijuelo? It has to do with the area’s particular microclimate. Guijuelo sits atop a rolling hillside, about 1,000 meters (or 3,300 feet) above sea level. In the summer it’s fairly warm, with temperatures in the 70s. In the winter, temperatures hover around freezing. And all year, it’s dry and windy. In the days before refrigeration, those were ideal conditions for aging ham.

Today, the concentration of ham makers in Guijuelo probably has as much to do with marketing and labeling regulations as with climate. The town is one of only four regions in Spain that have a Denomination of Origin (or DO) for jamón Ibérico, a similar certification to the protected geographical status that guarantees Parmigiano Reggiano or Champagne are made in particular, traditional places using particular, traditional methods. Of those four regions, about 60% of all jamón Ibérico is produced in Guijuelo. Opening up a new ham factory in Guijuelo is the first step toward being able to stamp the DO certification on your hams. But just like there’s a huge difference between regular grocery store balsamic and the old-fashioned, tradizionale version, there’s also a huge difference between one jamón Ibérico and another.

So you wanna make jamón?

First, you have to get some pork. Until about a decade ago, all jamón Ibérico was made with 100% pata negra pork. But in 2008, the financial crisis hit Spain hard. After decades of economic growth, suddenly unemployment was rampant—and there was a lot less money for ham. Practically every maker responded by finding ways to make their ham less expensive. The first thing to go was the pork. Instead of purebred pata negra pigs, they started using crossbred pigs that were 75% or 50% pata negra. The crossbred pigs grew bigger faster, making them less expensive to raise. But the pork doesn’t have the same exceptional flavor as you get with the purebred pata negras. Instead of raising the new pigs the traditional way outdoors on the dehesa, more and more pigs were brought indoors. That’s great for efficiency but less great for animal welfare. Being crammed in tight spaces, surrounded by too many animals and too much manure, isn’t great for flavor, either.

After the raw hams arrive, workers trim them, then salt them. The salting is fascinating: workers build a ham wall, stacking the hams in a straight line about perhaps ten feet long and two feet tall (or about six hams high). Then they use shovels to scoop mounds of very coarse sea salt on top of the hams. The hams will stay in the salt one day for every kilo of weight, so if a ham comes in weighing ten kilos it would salt for ten days. Halfway through, the hams are rotated and restacked so that the top ones end up on the bottom and vice versa. That ensures even salting across the batch.

Time for your spanking.

After salting, workers shape the hams by whacking the thigh end of the leg with a heavy plastic paddle that’s about a foot long and about 4 inches wide. That gives the hams just the right shape of roundness; more on that in a minute. After shaping, the hams hang. To start, they need to be in cold conditions that mirror winter so the meat doesn’t spoil. After a few weeks of winter, the salt has done enough curing magic that the hams can be moved into warmer temperatures, where they will continue to slowly cure for several months.

Traditionally, those temperature changes would have happened naturally with the seasons. These days, in order to ramp up production and make hams all year round, nearly every ham maker uses refrigeration to simulate winter, spring, and summer in giant, refrigerated rooms that are carefully controlled 24/7 for temperature and humidity.

The longer you age a ham, the more it costs: for the labor to continue to care for it, for the water weight loss, and for the space required to house it. Longer aging doesn’t necessarily mean a better product; it’s like wine, where some of the very best bottles can be aged for many years and others will never be any better—and may become worse—with longer aging. Jamón Ibérico needs about a year to fully cure before it can be sold. That’s a common age for many cured hams, including prosciutto di Parma from Italy and La Quercia’s prosciutto Americano from Iowa. Among Guijuelo ham makers that bill themselves as producing a premium product, it’s not uncommon to find jamón Ibérico sold at an age of 24+ months. That’s in line with the age of many of the intensely flavored country hams from the southern US, like Allan Benton’s. At the very best ham houses in Guijuelo—including Arturo Sanchez—and at Michelin-starred restaurants across Spain, it’s not uncommon to find jamón Ibérico that’s five or six years old.

Arturo Sanchez is a fourth-generation jamón Ibérico maker in Guijuelo.

They were one of the handful of commercial ham makers that was already in town back in the ‘70s. Today the company is run by Arturo Sanchez (the third generation, named after his grandfather) and his son, Ricardo. Though they’re one of the oldest firms, their volume is one of the smallest: last year, they produced around 24,000 jamóns.

Arturo Sanchez does a lot of things differently than their neighbors. During the financial crisis a decade ago, when most makers started going for less expensive pork, Arturo Sanchez went in the opposite direction. To make their Iberico de bellota pork, they began to focus solely on pigs with a double montanera. That is, pigs that spent two autumns gobbling up acorns out on the dehesa. The extra year to bulk up out on pasture makes the pigs quite a bit more expensive to raise, but that extra hit of the acorn diet makes the flavor of the pork even richer.

Most ham makers make prodigious use of refrigeration to control the environment their hams cure in. At Arturo Sanchez, the hams only ever spend a couple of weeks in refrigeration, right after salting, to emulate “winter” conditions. (It would be possible to make jamón Ibérico without refrigeration at all, but it would require even more shovelfuls of salt, which would give the finished ham a saltier, less balanced flavor.)

After those initial couple of weeks in refrigeration, the hams head to the highest floor of the Arturo Sanchez facility, three stories up. There, the hams will age at ambient temperature for a full year. The conditions on the top floor are the most extreme: the hottest in the summer, and the coldest in the winter. Most of that year, the windows will be opened and the cool, dry wind rolls right through. Because the hams age at ambient temperatures without any climate control, Arturo Sanchez only makes hams about half of the year, from November to early May. In order to develop the desired flavor, the hams need to cure in a real summer during their first season so that the warmer temperatures of the season can help trigger the naturally increased enzymatic activity in the meat. It’s sort of the same idea as rising bread dough: it will rise more quickly and develop more flavor in a warmer environment.

After a year on the top floor, the hams are moved to the second floor for another year of aging. When the hams are two years old, they’re moved to the bodega, or cellar, where the temperatures are cooler and more consistent across the year. The hams will spend at least one more year down there. The youngest hams sold by Arturo Sanchez are three years old, but most hams they sell are about four to five years old. Those extra years of aging make for exceptional depth of flavor.

How Ricardo picks a ham.

Walking through the bodega with Ricardo, you pass by hundreds and hundreds of hams. Sometimes he’ll point at one and remark, “Oh! That will be a very good ham.” Having grown up his whole life surrounded by jamón, he can tell a lot by sight. The first thing he looks at is the ankle. Purebred pata negra pigs have a skinnier ankle than the less expensive white pigs, so the thinner the ankle the better. Next, he looks at the shape and color: there’s a particular triangular roundness (that’s what the ham whackers try to achieve) and a golden shade of tan that he prefers.

Finally, Ricardo looks at the consistency of the fat on the outside of the leg. As the ham cures in the warm summer weather, some of the fat will bead on the surface of the meat and drip down the ham. A well-aged ham should have plenty of golden fat at the bottom. If you touch that fat you should practically be able to poke your finger into the ham because it’s so soft. The best fat will look mottled, not smooth. That indicates there’s more ribboning of fat on the inside of the meat.

The flavor of Arturo Sanchez jamón Ibérico de bellota is astounding.

If you’ve never tasted jamón Ibérico, it has a deep, intensely savory quality that’s rich, meaty, and a little nutty. Arturo Sanchez hits all of those notes, but at the same time it has a subtlety, almost a delicacy, that I have never experienced in any other jamón Ibérico. The flavor doesn’t hit you in the face the way some jamón Ibérico does; it slowly washes over you, growing and growing for an incredibly long, incredibly pleasant time. If you look closely at the ham, you may see that the deep red meat is flecked with white specks. That’s not mold, it’s little pockets of crystalized amino acids, same as you’ll find in some well-aged cheeses.

When you order jamón Ibérico at a restaurant in Spain, you’ll get a whole platter of neat, artfully arranged slices of cured ham served at room temperature, and nothing else. With other cured meats, you might also be served a bowl of picos: crunchy, mini breadstick-like crackers. But jamón Ibérico is meant to be eaten alone—or, at most, perhaps with a glass of cava, an aged Rioja, or a young sherry.

When you eat it, Ricardo recommends taking a small piece and putting it on your tongue, then moving your tongue up to the roof of your mouth and letting it melt. The fat really does just dissolve on your tongue, like magic. Eventually, you’ll chew a little, and as you do you may notice just a hint of a crunch from those amino acid flavor crystals. The whole time, the flavor just keeps going and going. It’s an exceptional eating experience; one you won’t soon forget.