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In Spain, the Holy Grail of Ham
Jamon lovers eat their way through Jabugo -- and don't stop until they're stuffed.

By Lisa Provence
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 9, 2001

. My husband is a foodie who's obsessed with ham. First it was salty country ham from Virginia. That was followed by a prosciutto phase. Then a taste of Spanish ham had us on a plane headed to Madrid.

Spain loves ham as much as my husband does. Every tapas bar, no matter how humble, has at least five hams -- with hoofs attached -- hanging from the ceiling in the midst of humanity, cigarette smoke and flying insects.

Classic Spanish ham -- jamón ibérico -- is a lot like Peking duck. It's been savored by a culture for centuries, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn't think it's safe to bring into this country -- unless you have the proper paperwork. As a result, it's rare to find it in America, and when you do, it's jamón serrano at $200 a pop.

Jamón serrano whetted our appetites for the primo ham you can't get in the States -- the renowned jamón ibérico de bellota from Jabugo in southwestern Spain, where free-range black pigs eat the sweet acorns -- bellotas -- that make those hams so prized. "That's where we're going," announcedmy husband, Steve, determined to journey to the heart of jamón country.

We arrivef in Madrid, the starting point for most travel in Spain. On our list of jamón landmarks to visit was the Museo del Jamon -- the Museum of Ham, a chain of jamón eateries. Another obligatory museum is the Prado, which we toured for all of about 40 minutes before hunger, jet lag and the hallucinatory qualities of El Bosco, as Hieronymus Bosch is called in Spain, sent us urgently in search of our first jamón.

We ducked into the tiled La Taberna Dolorosa a few blocks from the Prado. Steve ordered the long-anticipated jamón ibérico de bellota, along with olives and a plate of giant anchovies that comes with homemade potato chips.

Before going into salt arrest, I noted that the thinly sliced ham is fattier than jamón serrano, and seems richer than prosciutto, which has had its own USDA headaches getting imported to the States. Mainly, though, I needed a beer.

A stroll around Madrid confirmed that we were, indeed, in a jamón-loving country. Besides hams in every tapas bar, there are many ham stores, such as Paradiso Jamón. The meat slicers there offered us tastings of the different grades of jamón. A jamón ibérico de bellota, distinguished by its black hoof, cost $300, and the helpful guys behind the counter assured us that we could bring it into the United States as long it was shrink-wrapped in plastic.

We were dubious. Three hundred dollars is a lot to hand over to U.S. Customs, should they have been wrong. Also, we didn't want to lug around a ham for the next week, so we postponed our jamón purchases.

A couple of blocks away, on Calle Mayor, we discovered our first Museo del Jamon. At this point, we were too full to contemplate another bite. But we went in to admire the hams that covered the entire ceiling of this two-story restaurant, and bought a bottle of the incredibly cheap, surprisingly good Museo del Jamon house wine.

A car was required to reach Jabugo, so we took the high-speed train 340 miles to Seville and rented one, then drove northwest to the Jabugo region.

The four-lane highway became two lanes as we headedinto the hills. We saw thick-trunked trees seriously pruned and sprouting small shoots. Even unpruned, we wouldn't have recognized these as chestnut trees.

Western Andalusia has other unfamiliar trees. Cork trees are distinguished by their lack of bark, which has been cut off ultimately to stuff into wine bottles, thus leaving a black trunk. There are also holm oaks (encina), which produce the sweet acorns the black pigs eat. Under these trees, we were thrilled to spot some of the legendary black pigs rooting around for acorns.

We knew we were really off the American tourist track when we checked into the Hotel Galaroza Sierra and the desk clerk spoke no English. We took a two-bedroom apartment that faced the pool for $63 a night.

Our first stop was, no surprise, a ham store. Despite our deficient language skills, Señor Paco Jara of De Jabugo la Canada was adept at explaining why the Jabugo region produces the best ham. The hams are cured in salt one day per kilogram -- "No mas," he said. That means a 20-pound ham leg would be salted for fewer than 10 days, compared with, say, a Smithfield-type ham, which is in salt for more than a month.

Even in Jabugo, a 15-pound jamón ibérico de bellota costs $225. Señor Jara assured us that the packaged pieces of jamón were safe to bring into the United States. After all, he sells them to the European Union. So we spent about 60 bucks on a couple of gorgeous red-and-white chunks of jamón ibérico de bellota, packaged in plastic.

We wanted to see how the hams are cured, and I'd written out a request in my best David Sedaris-style "Me Talk Pretty One Day" Spanish. Sylvester Macias, at the Juan Macias plant, clearly thought we were nuts, but he agreed to show us around his facility, which contains 200,000 jamónes.

In the salt room, 4,000 jamónes were stacked on pallets. After salting, the hams are washed in what appears to be a car wash for hams and refrigerated for 40 to 50 days. Then they're hung to naturally air-cure for two years in rooms with slatted windows that can be opened or closed.

Seeing all these jamónes made us hungry for, well, jamón. We cruised to nearby Aracena (population: about 7,000), the capital of the region, and stopped in at the Bar Tapas Sirlache for our first jamón of the day with a side of ensaladilla, potato salad with peas and bits of tomato. We also tried Licor de Bellota, a liqueur made from the encina acorns. We'd been warned that we wouldn't like it, but we found its vanilla-y flavor yummy, and our first order of business after lunch was to buy a bottle to take home.

We headed for another meat-processing facility, this time with a translator, Felix, who teaches middle school English. The specialty of the Conservas Jabugo is embutidos -- sausages. The company makes basic Spanish sausages -- chorizo, salchichón, morcón and morcilla -- as well as the cured tenderloin lomo and a few jamónes.

Everyone we met around town expounded on why Jabugo hams are the best. Some credited the dry, mountainous micro-climate of Jabugo. "If you take the same pig to Seville 100 kilometers away," said Felix, "it would taste different."

Others cited the natural process and lack of preservatives other than pure sea salt. Before the days of refrigeration, hams were kept in cellars to cure, and even now, many locals hang hams in their cellars every fall. Said our Conservas Jabugo guide, Ignacio Contreras, of the elaborate computer-controlled refrigeration of his plant: "This imitates an ancient cellar. Nothing is new in the process."

We had time to visit one more jamón-curing facility. At Montesierra, director Manuel Martin showed us around his plant, which had 150,000 hams hanging in various stages of aging. Feeling one ham, he said, "This one needs more time. It's soft." Martin has some prize hams that have been aging for four years, and one of these babies costs $500.

On our last night in Jabugo, at Los Castanos bar, we asked Joseph, the amiable barkeep, who made the best ham in town. He did, he said -- he takes about five hams a year and cures them in his cellar for five years, the longest curing time we've heard yet. Steve was salivating to taste Joseph's jamón, and I'd never seen more shameless groveling for an invitation. Unfortunately, we were distracted by a couple of Brits who'd just driven in from Portugal, and the moment to cozy up to Joseph was lost.

Two days later, after landing in Philadelphia, we dutifully declared our purchases: sherry, Licor de Bellota, Carlos III brandy, a chorizo we'd picked up in the duty-free shop in Madrid, a couple of sausage samples from the Conservas Jabugo and, of course, our precious packages of bellota ham.

We wee directed to the USDA line, where a beefy agent grabbed our meat products and said, "You can't bring these in."

We were stunned. Paco Jara -- and everyone else we'd talked to in Spain -- had assured us we could bring jamón back. We cursed our naivete, and the import regulations.

"I bet those aren't going in the trash," Steve told the agent.

"Yes, they are," he replied. "I wouldn't eat this stuff."

Incredible. Our prizes had been confiscated by a food philistine.

Fortunately, there was one thing the USDA couldn't take from us: the ancient technology of pig leg, salt and air. A foodie obsessed by ham and mourning the loss of his beloved bellota doesn't resign himself to waiting for the next trip to Spain to eat jamón again. Which is why jamón -- homemade in Virginia -- now hangs in our basement.

Lisa Provence is a freelance writer in Charlottesville.

You know you're not supposed to bring fruit from overseas into the United States, but how about the fresh pâté or prosciutto you've been savoring on vacation?

Sorry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn't care how expensive or gourmet your food product is -- if it's on the list of forbidden foods, you can kiss that kielbasa goodbye. Meats, fresh or dried, from most countries are strictly forbidden because of the fear of two major livestock diseases, hoof-and-mouth and mad cow.

So what's the No. 1 smuggled food product? Mangoes. "Mangoes are smuggled more than drugs," said USDA staff officer David Reeves, "and they come in from all over the world."

According to Reeves, who has worked for the USDA in various seaports and airports for the past 30 years, the USDA is typically on the lookout for the following foods brought from abroad:

• Europe. Meat products such as salami, sausage, fresh pâté and specialty hams such as prosciutto. Fruit such as apples and, from the Mediterranean, oranges. Reeves says he once stopped a man with a bag of live snails he'd brought from Italy -- a definite no-no.

• Africa. Bush meat, whose origin is often unknown to its carriers. "It could be warthog," says Reeves, or some other African-swine-fever-carrying critter. Also, tropical fruits such as guavas and mangoes.

• Asia. Fruits such as mangoes, lychees and longans, which look like big grapes. Most commercially canned meats can come in -- but only if the inspector can determine that the meat was cooked in the can after it was sealed. However, homemade pork and beef are sometimes put into cans and soldered shut, a look Reeves calls "very sophisticated."

• Caribbean, South and Central America. Fruits such as mangoes, guava and hog plums. Those fresh, red coffee berries can't come in either. Yams and root crops, as well as pork, often appear from the Caribbean and Central America.

• Canada. Citrus from other countries. Otherwise, you can bring anything across the border as long as it's Canadian in origin.

For more information on forbidden foodstuffs, check the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Web site, www.aphis.usda.gov/travel, or call 866-SAFGUARD.

-- Lisa Provence

DETAILS

GETTING THERE: Fly into either Madrid or Seville and explore the countryside from those points. US Airways, Spanair and other major carriers fly from Washington to Madrid for about $640 round trip. The flight to Seville, via Madrid or London, starts at about $1,050 round trip.

If you begin in Madrid and want to get to Jabugo, take a train to Seville ($53-$79) and rent a car. (Driving in and around Madrid is not for the faint of heart.) It's about 65 miles to the Jabugo area, and along the way, be sure to take in Cadiz and the sherry capital of Jerez de la Frontera (93 and 60 miles from Seville, respectively).

WHERE TO STAY: The Hotel Galaroza Sierra (Carretera Sevilla-Lisboa, telephone 011-34-959-12-3237), just down the road from Jabugo, has rural Spanish decor with white stucco walls and heavy wooden beams. Its Spartan rooms run around $42 per night in the off-season, and there are four apartments that sleep four for about $60.

In downtown Aracena, about 10 miles from Jabugo, the Hotel Los Castanos (5 Ave. de Huelva, 011-34-959-12-6300) seems luxurious by comparison. A suite is $65 off-season, $75 peak.

In Madrid, splurge at the Tryp Ambassador (Cuesta de Santo Domingo 5-7, 011-34-91-541-6700), the former palace of the Duke of Granada; rates are around $144. If you visit Cadiz, indulge in the Paradores Hotel Atlantico (9 Ave. Duque de Najera, 011-34-95-622-6905) for $100. All rooms have ocean views.

WHERE TO EAT: The best dining around Jabugo is in Aracena. Try Jose Vicente (53 Ave. of Andalusia) for its fresh (not cured) pork. Cafeteria Restaurante Montecruz (Playa de San Pedro) serves great cilantro soup. Stop into the Bar Tapas Sirlache to check out the local scene, including patrons who look like beret-wearing Picassos.

In Madrid, we swooned over the baby eels at La Torre del Oro at the Plaza Mayor. And don't forget to order the grilled snails and Catalan cuisine at La Huerta de Lleida (Cuesta de Santo Domingo 16). El Faro (15 San Felix) enjoys the reputation of the best restaurant in Cadiz, with its tapas menu that includes fried cheese and leeks, and shrimp fritters.

WHAT TO DO: See how jamón is made at one of the 16 companies that bear the Jabugo label. Sanchez Romero Carvajal (its hams are in such demand they're all pre-sold) and the Conservas Jabugo in Aracena offer tours; others were gracious when we showed up at their doors. Beware, no one speaks English in these places.

The region also offers other low-key diversions. The Parque Natural Sierra de Aracena has more than 400,000 acres of local terrain available for hiking, biking and fishing among cork trees, holm oaks and chestnut trees. In Aracena, the Cave of Marvels (Gruta de las Maravillas) has been attracting tourists for centuries, and the 13th-century ruins of El Castillo offer the best views in town.

INFORMATION: Tourist Office of Spain, 212-265-8822, www.okspain.org.

-- Lisa Provence

© 2001 The Washington Post Company