Let's go into mouth-watering detail about the gorgeous pork products from Extremadura. Ham from Jabugo and Guijuelo might be slightly better known but is no tastier. It's the same old story of poor marketing for Extremadura, although there's thus great value for money to be had within the context of an expensive product!
Getting to grips with terminology is key here.
- Serrano pork comes from bog-standard international breeds of pigs.
- Ibérico pork comes from the Ibérico breed of pig, native to the peninsula. What makes it special is the marbled fat like in Kobe beef (one reason why Ibérico products are so popular in Japan!)
- Within Ibérico pork there are categories:
1) the standard stuff, which is still excellent, either just titled Jamón Ibérico or Jamón Ibérico de Cebo, fattened solely with feed
2) the intermediate Jamón Ibérico de Recebo, fattened with a mixture of feed and acorns
3) and the top-notch Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, meaning that the pig in question has lived free on the plains (called dehesas) and eaten a specified amount of acorns prior to slaughter. These acorns give the pork a wonderful extra complexity.
The above-mentioned terminology is useful when ordered fresh cuts at the butchers and restaurants, but really comes into play when buying or ordering cured sausages and hams. One important point is that hams with a D.O. Dehesa de Extremadura seal provide a guarantee that the pigs are Ibérico and have scoffed the requisite acorns. These hams are inevitably also the most expensive ones!
Remember that the thinner you cut the ham the better it tastes. Don't look askance if a waiter serves you up a dish of what seem like scraps! It's also far tastier when hand-carved off the bone, so vacuum packs or uniform, machined slices are never as good as the real thing.
So where can these pork products be purchased? Well, they're available throughout Extremadura, especially in the areas that are most frequented by tourists, but the main area of production is down in the south of Extremadura. The highest concentration of producers' outlets for direct sales is in Monesterio (conveniently just off the Vía de la Plata motorway up from Seville) and Jerez de los Caballeros, a lovely little town near the Portuguese border that's worth a visit in itself. There's a good stroll to be had around its winding streets with lots of pretty churches and a castle that once belonged to the Templar knights.
Perhaps the best chance to buy a ham is if you happen to come within striking distance of Jerez de los Caballeros when their annual Ham Fair is held in early May. The producers sell their wares to the general public (by the dish or by the whole ham) and are likely to offer you something good at such a showpiece event. What's more, it's a real social occasion for the town and a great day out. There's even a funfair set up to keep kids happy!