As anyone who has been to Spain will already know, when it comes to food the pig holds a special place of affection in the hearts of the Spanish (if you can excuse a rather mixed metaphor). No one knows exactly how long this love affair has been going on, but it’s thought that domesticated pigs were first brought to the peninsula by the Phoenicians nearly three thousand years ago, though the native Iberians had no doubt been hunting the native wild boar for many centuries before that. Although always popular, the centrality of the pig in Spain was cemented in the late Middle Ages as the Christians wrested control from the Moors and the Jews, and the consumption of pork became something of a symbol of the new Christian Spain.
At some point the boar and the domesticated pigs were crossbred, resulting in the Iberian peninsula’s very own special breed, the famous Iberian black-footed pig. They are raised mainly in the hill country of northwest Andalucia and Extramadura, on a specially maintained landscape called a dehesa, essentially grassland with groves of oak trees, and the pigs fatten by foraging on acorns (Spanish bellota). Although not numerically the majority of Spanish pigs, this is the breed which supplies the unique and highly prized Iberian pork and ham products.
Most prized of all, of course, is the wonderful jamon Iberico Bellota. The combination of breed, free-range diet and the curing process make this the treat not to be missed. Succulent and full of flavour, it is arguably the best ham in the world, and for the full Spanish effect it should be accompanied by a glass of chilled manzanilla or fino. You should also try caña de lomo, a cured Iberian pork loin with a subtly different taste and texture.
But it’s not all jamon. Traditionally, every part of the pig is used. Lean cuts such as presa or solomillo are normally grilled (solomillo is popular with a whisky sauce with lots of garlic and a hint of lemon that’s absolutely delicious). The slightly fattier pluma and secreto, as well as bacon, may be either grilled or fried. But it doesn’t stop there. Tender stewed pork cheeks (carrillada) seem to be one of Spain’s best kept culinary secrets. So too is morcilla, or blood sausage. The idea can be off-putting to some, but in fact it’s very tasty, and very versatile.
But when I say every part of the pig is used, I mean every part. From tripes (the secret’s in the sauce) to feet and from snout to tail, it’s all part of somebody’s favourite dish. I’ve tried pretty well all of them at one time or another, and haven’t found one that I don’t like. How many are you going to try while you’re here?