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IV Jamon Festival in Estepona Municipality in Málaga Province

By Nick Nutter | 11 Aug 2017 | Events

It could be compared to a match between Celtic and Rangers, although the Spanish take this even more seriously. Wars have been fought for less and everybody has his or her own opinion. I am of course talking about the subjective question, 'Which tastes better, Serrano or Iberico'. For five evenings in August you have the rare opportunity to sample dozens of different brands and grades of both for a price that will not break the bank. Then you can make up your own mind.

Last year, 2016, a small plate of jamon cost 5 Euros. The jamon stalls are set up at the western end of the paseo at Estepona between 8pm and 2am from Thursday 10th August to Tuesday 15th August 2017. You will find over fifty vendors from all over southern, western and northern Spain presenting the best jamon from their regions in the fourth Jamon Festival of Estepona. You can sample everything from jamon purchased in supermarkets to be used as a seasoning to the finest connoisseur's bellota that should only be consumed as it is with a fine wine and perhaps a strong cheese and some olives.

The Jamon Festival has been growing. It started off as less than a dozen stalls just for a couple of evenings. Now it is a full blown five nights out. The large stage set up over the beach hosts a different group every evening from 11.30pm, on the 10th - Nuria Fergó, 11th -Calle Salvador, 12th - Las Seventies, 13th - Salvador Beltrán, 14th - Rocío Cortés closing with José Manuel Soto on the 15th. Nor will you go thirsty with bars set up at regular intervals down the paseo.

Trevelez in the Sierra Nevada

Trevelez in the Sierra Nevada

Jamon Serrano has been produced in Spain since Roman times and the process has remained unchanged since. Hams from white pigs are covered in sea salt and left for a few days. The salt draws out moisture from the meat. Then the hams are hung in sheds to be cured. Originally the sheds were high in the mountains (sierras hence serrano). Nowadays the curing sheds can be anywhere and are atmospherically controlled. They are then hung and aged for one year by which time they will weigh at least one third less than before they were cured. Traditionally the ham curing process starts in early November when the pigs are slaughtered. In the remote villages the occasion is usually treated as a festival and all over Spain the ritual of killing the pigs is called 'matanza' which actually means sacrifice and reflects the very different attitude and respect the Spanish have for the animal compared to the English word slaughter. Jamon Serrano is still made in the traditional way at Trevélez, a small village in the Sierra Nevada mountains in Granada province.

Jamon from the Sierra de Aracena in 2015

Jamon from the Sierra de Aracena in 2015

Jamon Iberico is reckoned to be the finest Spanish jamon and the finest in the world. Iberico pigs are black and are the original breed of swine in Spain. There are cave paintings depicting this animal. Free to roam the mountain pastures and eat acorns (bellota) from the oak forests these black hooved, hence 'pata negra', pigs are larger than the white pig and much fatter although with more slender legs, reflecting their need for increased agility in a mountain environment. Well that is the romantic version. Nowadays Jamon Iberico is produced from the Iberico pig that has been fed corn and other pig feed. They are semi wild in as much as they can roam a large pasture but are no longer free to gambol in the mountains. The villages and towns in the Sierra de Aracena, Cumbres and Cortegana, are where you need to be to try this jamon.

and here they are again in 2017 - like the shirt

and here they are again in 2017 - like the shirt

Jamon Iberico de Bellota is produced from the Iberico pig that has, for the last three to four months of its life, been allowed to feed freely in the dehesa. Centuries ago, by Royal decree, every village in western Spain maintained a pasture studded with holm and cork oaks that was used communally for firewood, making cork and feeding cattle and pigs on the acorns. This typically western Spanish landscape is called the dehesa. The ham produced in this fashion is the most expensive, most exquisite, most flavoursome, fattiest ham you will ever enjoy. Jabugo in the Sierra de Aracena in Huelva province is the place to go to sample Jamon Iberico de Bellota.

71 Jamon stalls in 2017

71 Jamon stalls in 2017

How to recognise good jamon

Unless you are buying whole hams then the labels and badges attached are of little use. After sampling too many plates of jamon at the last Estepona Festival I am going to tell you how to recognise good jamon.

First the packet. It should be labelled Jamon Serrano, Jamon Iberico or Jamon Iberico Bellota. Within each broad section you are looking for a dark red meat with yellow fat cut razor thin. The darker the meat and the more yellow the fat the better will be the taste and texture and the price should reflect that.

Bright red meat and white fat indicate a somewhat chewy, less intense flavoured ham perfectly suited to cooking, try it with broad beans, the famous 'habas y jamon' dish served all over Spain as a tapas.

The dark, almost black meat richly marbled with golden yellow fat is too precious to use in cooking. This is a treat on its own accompanied by some strong cheese and a dish of olives.

Sample the jamon

Sample the jamon

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