Jammin. At a ham festival.

Kike’s dad has a dehesa. In other words, a big old farm in the rolling hills of the Sierra Morena full of oak trees whose acorns feed the big, fat, black pigs who live within the fences of Finca Roche. The jamon iberico from these parts is world-famous – and with reason.
I rounded up a whole lot of people to go to Aracena, a pueblo blanco in the hills of the Huelva province, for their annual Ham Festival. This is a product natural only to Spain, and its taste is unique in the sense that the pigs, often called Pata Negra for their black skin and hair, are only fed acorns after they stop weaning. This gives the ham a buttery taste.
I hated ham when I first came to Spain. Seeing an upside-down pig leg with the hoof and hair still intact is a little unnverving, and the insides are bright red and loaded with fat (called tocino). Cuanto más tocino, they say, the better the ham. To me, it tasted slimy and rubbery and I kept seeing the piggies gorging on acorns and I couldn’t swallow it. Sure, I loved secreto ibérico and cana de lomo, and could eat coagulated blood and liver pate, but the pata was different.
But time and an appreciation for the leg has served me well. Perhaps the moment when I realized how big a part of the culture the jamon was when Kike took thirty minutes to select his jamonero, the piece of hardware used to mount the leg at the perfect angle to peels off thin slices of the meat. He later called all of his friends to come over and eat the ham, only to complain when half the thing was carved up an hour later. Or when the chiringuito paid to check a pata negra on a flight to Italy to have some snack food. I mean, paying an extra 20 euros on a Ryan Air flight when the meat itself costs upwards of 100 euros? Qué locura.
So I went and celebrate the art of jamón in Aracena. The bus was packed, and you could practically see the nervous excitement and mouths watering as we neared the town of 7,500 in the Sierra de Aracena in nearby Huelva. The town sits between two peaks, commanded by the ruins of a castle and church at the very top of one, and a huge luxury hotel on the other side of the valley.
We walked around the town after a quick tostada (I saved the ham for later and stuck to just tomato and olive oil), which was deserted at 11 am, save a short old man trying to sell us whistles whittled from thick twigs. The streets wound up and up towards the cusp of the old town and the Plaza Alta. Laundry hung from balconies, warmed by the cloudless day, and the only noise was the occasional camión navigating around the thin alleyways.
The church, Nuestra Senora del Mayor Dolor (Our lady of the worst pain, more or less), looks out over the town with a belltower and sparrows and the makings of a creepy movie set, but from here we could see the valley, the rest of the Sierra and the fairgrounds. We took the scenic route down the mountain, through boulders and mud and trees, that is, and bought tickets to the Gruta de las Maravillas.
Down the other side of the hill was the Recinto Ferial, a cluster of stands selling different pork products, jamoneros and surtidos. Families scoped out tables and lay out their spreads of meats and dishes on top. The patriarch sliced the ham to rousing shouts of, OLE!, as children poked sticks through the gates of the pig stalls. They sat fat and black and lazy in their pens, unaware of the matanza (slaughter) that would take place later that afternoon. Spectators munched on thinly sliced ibérico on plastic plates with bottles of Cruzcampo, passing thru the stands while a man bellowed out the prices for his embutidos. The whole grounds were packed by the time we arrived at 1 pm.
Before we saw the Grottoes, I met with Kate, an American married to a Spaniard from Aracena. They had already knocked back several bottles of wine and half of their pata, so we joined in with our surtido iberico and beers. The tent standing in the middle of the fairgrounds sold other ham products – costillas, croquetas de jamón, carne con tomate, carrillada. I had never been so excited to eat, de verdad, and because Caitlyn was there with no prior exposure to ham, I had to explain how they’re raised and slaughtered and eaten. I’ve certainly learned a lot from Kike!
After a visit to the grottoes and another beer, we headed back to Sevilla, bellies full. I met Jenna later that night for a tapa and a beer and ate, what else? Pork.
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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living amongst pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she wrangles babies at an English language academy and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.

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