I dream of this ham
Carrasco ibérico ham 'bodegas' in Guijuelo. Adrienne Smith/©ICEX
Author: Adrienne Smith/©ICEX
The town of Guijuelo smells like ham: not just any ham, but the cured Ibérico hams that have made this area so famous in Spain and beyond. The sweet, nutty and almost bakery-like aromas of this, one of Spain’s most celebrated products, pervade the streets of this approximately 6,000-person town. And while there is nothing quite like stepping out of a car and being engulfed in this heady scent, what's even better is spending the day visiting one of the town’s most celebrated ham makers: Carrasco.
Guijuelo is located in the province of Salamanca in Castile-Leon. From Madrid, the freeway takes you north of the town of Ávila towards Salamanca, through field after field of golden wheat that shimmers across the plains like a Van Gogh painting. As another option, you can take the two-lane N-110 highway that drops south from Avila and weaves through green hills and valleys along the edge of the Sierra de Gredos mountains, where small stone farmhouses and Romanesque churches dot the view. Whichever road you choose, you would not be the first to venture here to try the town’s most famous product: the Ibérico ham that has been produced here for centuries.
Granted a Designation of Origin in 1984, Ibérico ham from Guijuelo accounts for 65% of Spanish Ibérico ham production. Part of the reason is that the area's cold, dry winter climate is ideal for curing meat, a fact that was not lost on Francisco Carrasco when he opened a small ham curing business here in 1895. Now, three generations later, Carrasco is still run by his descendants. In fact, although the company has chosen not to remain on the D.O.’s Regulatory Board, its first president was none other than Santos Carrasco, who held the position for ten years.
Regardless, Carrasco’s dedication to producing high quality Ibérico hams has remained unchanged. This was very evident during my visit to the company’s installations last spring. I was lucky enough to tour the factory (which seems like far too industrial a word for the artisanal nature of what they do) with brothers Francisco and Atanasio Carrasco, the Sales Director and General Manager, respectively. Their intimate knowledge of this product and its nuances stems from a lifetime of dedication to and reverence for the Ibéricon pig. As Atanasio explained, "It’s like no other kind of pig in the world and is almost the same genetically as it was hundreds of years ago". He believes that the intoxicating aromas and flavors found in Ibérico ham are 70-80% a result of the raw material – the pig itself. The rest comes from the treatment given to the pigs, both before and after slaughter, in the making of the exquisite bellota (acorn) Ibérico hams, for which the company is famous.
Carrasco’s Ibérico pigs spend the first 25 days of their lives with their mothers, followed by another 30-40 day weaning period in which they begin to eat grains such as corn and oats. Next, they are left to wander free on the company’s estate in Jerez de los Caballeros (Badajoz, Extremadura), where they eat a 100% natural diet of grains and grasses. Finally, between October and February, acorns from the native oak trees ripen and the pigs enter the montanera stage of their lives, which is considered the most delicate and decisive for the bellota Ibérico ham.
Essentially, they roam the forests gorging on delicious acorns (about 8 kilos a day per pig). These acorns have a huge effect on the aromas, flavors and textures of the meat and fat. Finally, the pigs are slaughtered at around 18 months and brought to the Carrasco factory in Guijuelo. Here, the legs (called jamones and paletas) go to one place and the pork loin to another, where the latter is used to make exquisite bellota Ibérico chorizos, salchichones and lomos (cured whole loins). These sausages are prepared using only the finest traditional ingredients, such as D.O. Pimentón de la Vera (paprika) and oregano from the plains of Salamanca. At my first stop inside the factory I watched a woman use a modern machine to manually stuff the paprika-tinted loins into their casings. This combination of artisanal and innovative production methods epitomizes Francisco’s statement that, “What is truly beautiful is the mixture of tradition and technology.” Although traditional techniques and recipes are maintained, “Technology allows us to improve the product and reduce errors.”
Moving along to watch the ham-making process, I confess I felt a bit like a kid in a candy store: hams everywhere I turned. The curing process begins in a rectangular room that resembles a large walk-in refrigerator. The hams are hand-covered in coarse salt and stacked around the walls for 2-3 days depending on their weight, infusing the meat with its characteristic soft texture and the rich and almost sweet flavors. Although the salt continues to work its way into the center of the hams, they are washed on the outside in water and then hung to dry in a cold environment for approximately 120 days to dry. Next, they cure for 18 months hanging in secaderos, which are heavily influenced by the area's climate. Long windows are studiously opened and shut to allow the dry breezes and hot and cold blasts of Guijuelo's summer and winter months to swirl around the rows of hams. I love the fact that there is no man-made substitute for the natural effects of the area's microclimate on them. Covered by glistening, almost golden layers of fat on the outside, the hams at this stage smell heavenly: rather like buttery pecan shortbread on a Christmas morning. Finally, they are moved to the underground bodegas, or cellars, where they are hung for at least another 12 months in cool, dark silence. As with wines, there are different "vintages" of ham, depending on how much time they are left to age in the cellars, which can be up to several years.
It is here that you can truly begin to appreciate the exquisite and artisanal nature of these hams. For one, the aromas at this stage are deeper, subtler but more complex, like baked goods and – I'll just come right out and say it – ham! At this point, most of the hams are hanging in groups labeled with their final destination. The names jump out like a registry of some of the finest hotels and restaurants in the country, not to mention Hola! Magazine. Clients can store their hams in these cellars for years, and take only what they need at the time, while leaving their specifications for further aging. I was tempted to ask if I could sleep here, lulled by the enticing aromas and comforted by a ceiling replete with hanging hams. Luckily, the Carrasco brothers managed to lure me away to the stylish tasting room where I was finally allowed to inhale plate after plate of this luscious ham, sliced paper-thin. Blushingly pink and translucent, it was soft and yielding, delicate, nutty and almost sweet on the palate, with just a slight hint of salt – perhaps the best I've ever had.
With so many external factors influencing first the pigs and later the hams (climate, acorn production, disease, curing etc.), it’s no wonder that these products are both expensive and world famous. As Atanasio attests, “It’s a miracle that bellota Ibérico ham even exists because it can only be made in a very small area and is a very risky endeavor”. Fortunately for us, it does, and it’s easy to see why Carrasco’s bellota Ibérico hams are found in many of the finest restaurants and shops in the country. Internationally, the company currently exports around 10% of its annual production of approximately 50,000 hams, to countries like France, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, the Dominican Republic, Taiwan, the Czech Republic, Norway, Slovakia, Hong Kong and Australia; and the list keeps growing.
Tradition and quality
Whether here or abroad, Carrasco attributes its success to its simultaneous dedication to tradition and quality, while adapting to the changing demands of modern consumers. Examples of this are the new Mas Gourmets shops open in Madrid (in the Mercado San Miguel) and Barcelona. These sleek delicatessen/boutiques offer a wide variety of Carrasco products, while providing people with the opportunity to enjoy them on site, thereby bringing the gourmet ham experience directly to the public. Another way of reaching a broader audience is through packaging innovations. Given that properly slicing an entire ham can be a daunting and difficult process, Carrasco’s “Llena de emociones” (full of emotions) presents the perfect solution. This elegant box contains an entire bellota Ibérico ham, already sliced and handily packaged in 30 vacuum-sealed envelopes. It also includes a package of chopped ham pieces and two others containing ham bones, which are great for making stocks.
Finally, Carrasco has ongoing collaborations with some of Spain’s most Avant-garde chefs, such as Rodrigo de la Calle, Ramón Freixa and Paco Morales, and another handful of prominent chefs in Holland and Italy. There’s even a space on their website dedicated to “Pioneering Food”, which lists some of the gastronomic creations made using their products, including ham crisps, patatas bravas cooked in Ibérico ham oil, ham and cheese puffs and olives stuffed with ham shavings and cream. Late, great Spanish chef Santi Santamaría, who believed that ‘behind every dish there is a raw material’, is said to have professed his love for Carrasco ham to fellow chef Manuel de la Osa. Happily stuffing myself with Carrasco’s melt-in-your-mouth Jamón Ibérico de bellota, washed down with a rosé Champagne, I was inclined to agree.
Adrienne Smith is a sommelier, chef and freelance writer. She has spent the last decade eating and drinking her way through Spain.