First it’s the heady aroma, the perfume of years of love and care that have gone into making one of the world’s most exclusive and expensive meats – up to €4,100 (HK$37,000) for a single leg. Then the feel between the fingers and on the tongue, lightly oiled but never greasy; before the wave of flavour, an umami tsunami of deep, rich, gently salted and nutty joy, spreading across the palate and lingering like a great wine.
It’s safe to say I’m a fan of jamón ibérico de bellota, Spain’s much-admired cured ham made from pigs raised on acorns. To ensure the best quality, by law these indulged animals must have a minimum of two hectares each to roam free in the ancient oak glades and cork forests of Spain, known as dehesas.
These pata negra pigs – named after their black hooves – have been raised in Spain for millennia and are some of Europe’s last meat grazed on original pasture. They live three times longer than industrially raised animals, while the subsequent salting, hanging, drying and ageing of their back legs adds at least two years before they can be enjoyed. They represent just one per cent of Spain’s total ham production and are sought-after the world over – increasingly in China. But it’s their homeland that provides the ultimate opportunities to indulge.
This small town in the gently rolling hills of southwest Andalusia is one of Spain’s two main production centres of jamón ibérico de bellota, both of which hold a Denominación de Origen label. While there are scores of producers, the oldest and most revered is Cinco Jotas, in business since 1879. Follow a fascinating tour of the production process – including a visit to the cool subterranean cellars known as bodegas where thousands of legs hang from the ceiling – with tastings in bars and restaurants dotted all over town. cincojotas.com
Spain’s other great centre of jamón ibérico de bellota is Guijuelo near Salamanca, two hours’ drive west of Madrid. It’s home to another top-end brand, Joselito, but again there are scores of shops, bars and restaurants to choose from across the compact if not especially pretty town. It’s the coolest of the jamón-producing regions, resulting in noticeably sweeter meat, as you can taste at a long-time local favourite restaurant, El Pernil Ibérico. facebook.com/elpernilIberico
Salamanca is an historical and cultural delight, even before you add in a world of jamón tasting and dining options, while the annual ibérico pork forum is held here in October. Shops dot the medieval cobblestone streets, while the huge Plaza Mayor square is hard to beat as a backdrop. El Meson de Gonzalo is a good choice and has been around since 1947. Reserve a table downstairs to eat surrounded by ancient walls, while their patatas bravas (potato cubes with spicy tomato sauce) have also been named among Spain’s best. elmesondegonzalo.es
Casa González has been showcasing Spain’s finest hams, cheeses and other produce since 1931 in an elegant but relaxed deli-restaurant in Madrid’s Literary Quarter. Choose from countless regional specialities and multiple types of ham, while succulent oxtail stew and wild boar are two other highlights. More than 200 wines from just two euros (HK$18) a glass will ensure you stay there longer than you expected. casagonzalez.es
Walking into Casa Alfonso, in a listed building that celebrates Barcelona’s architectural heritage, the aroma of jamón ibérico is unmistakeable. Go for tapas at the long marble bar, with hams hanging from the ceiling, or take a table for more substantial eating surrounded by elegant wood panels showing old photos and posters. casaalfonso.com
Cathay Pacific flies to Madrid from Hong Kong five times a week, and to Barcelona four times a week