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Pigs, Salt & Glory

For generations, Carnicas Joselito has made the best cured hams in Spain

Bruce Schoenfeld
Posted: February 9, 2004

As the current leader of Spain's first family of ham, José Gomez adheres to traditional husbandry and processing to produce his Gran Reserva hams.

The man behind Spain's most renowned ham strides down the hallway of a featureless factory in a flash of red suspenders, a cell phone tucked between his ear and his shoulder. José Gomez steps over crates and around pillars without breaking stride, leafing through a sheaf of papers and carrying on an animated conversation as he goes. He's trying to be everywhere at once, and largely succeeding.

A fifth-generation pork curer, Gomez, 37, doesn't so much run Carnicas Joselito S.A., a producer of exquisite ham and other pork products that dates to the 19th century, as he does embody it. His hair slicked back, his body's contours yielding to the cumulative effects of years of denying himself little, Gomez manages to pack a lot of good living -- as well as a lot of ham -- into each day. He seems to know intimately every important personality in the Spanish food and wine world, as well as most of the sports figures, bullfighters and politicians.

It wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to say that Gomez cuts as high a profile in the universe of Spanish gastronomy as his ham does, which would be substantial praise indeed. Joselito's Gran Reserva is the scarcest and arguably the most delicious ham produced in Spain. It is made from pigs that roam untethered for nearly two years, munching on acorns that fall from 100-year-old trees.

The hams are sold in vintages, like wine (the vicissitudes are mostly a function of the quality of the acorn harvest), and reserved and paid for by purchasers two years in advance, like Bordeaux futures. Other high-volume, cured-ham producers are struggling these days, but not Joselito. It sells every Gran Reserva ham it makes, every year.

By maintaining traditional standards as the industry changes around it, Joselito has helped transform what used to be the ultimate farmer's food, a slice of fatty pork often served with a crust of rough bread, into an international delicacy. You have to visit a three-star restaurant, or its retail equivalent, to taste Joselito's Gran Reserva -- but if you do, you'll understand why it's worth the effort. The slices of meat are colored a deeper crimson than other hams, and are streaked with gleaming fat. The taste is stronger and richer, delicate yet almost feral: espresso to the others' watery coffee.

"The force of the ham is exactly why I like it," says Hilario Arbelaitz, who serves only Joselito Gran Reserva ham at Zuberoa Jatetxea, his restaurant near San Sebastián. "It's stronger, more interesting than the others."

Gomez himself is similarly intense. He has so many enthusiasms that he doesn't know how to fit them all into one life. He loves bullfighting almost as much as he loves pork, which is almost as much as he loves wine. At his home two blocks from the factory, he has a cellar stocked with a selection of Romanée-Contis, Latours and cultish collectibles, favorites from Europe and beyond. He pulls them out and drinks them regularly, even gives bottles away to friends. He never worries that there won't be enough left, because he has Joselito ham to trade.

A 40-minute drive south of Salamanca sits the monochromatic Castilian town of Guijuelo, population 4,000. Its dry mountain air and soft breezes are ideal for curing the pig legs and sausage products that come from animals grazing as far away as Andalusia, many hours to the south.

Nearly 200 ham factories are crammed into Guijuelo's narrow streets, but Carnicas Joselito is unlike the rest. Rather than announce its presence with a garish sign in an attempt to lure potential customers, Joselito is hidden away on a side street, in a building devoid of identification. It doesn't need new customers, and it doesn't want visitors.

Gomez's hams are coveted because the pigs he raises live almost as well as he does. And their bloodlines are different from those of other Spanish pigs. Gomez likens them to Miuras, a storied caste of fighting bulls. "A completely different race," he says.

Joselito's pigs are more likely than others to integrate fat into their muscles, adding to the flavor of the meat. Like fighting bulls, too, Joselito's pigs are largely left alone until they come of age. There are no pens, no fences except the one marking the border of the property, and no forced feeding.

Instead, they are free to roam the forests and the swampland, strengthening their muscles and deepening their flavor. They are allotted an astonishing 5 acres per pig of the several hundred thousand acres the company owns in the regions of Andalusia and Extremadura. Each animal doesn't use all of its land at once. Instead, the 120,000 or so pigs that Gomez has grazing at any given time are rotated from site to site. They gorge on acorns, and then move on for more as the harvest works its way northward.

Pigs are literally what they eat, and Joselito's pigs eat a better diet than most. They feed on acorns from October to February and grasses and grains the rest of the year. They are not brought in to slaughter until a third of their body weight comes from acorns, a process that usually takes close to two years. That's enough time to impart a strong flavor of acorn into their meat, which is where the note of wildness in the cured ham's taste originates.

Hams are periodically rubbed with salt and spices during the 24-month curing process. 

Most other hams produced by Spanish companies come from pigs that are raised in pens, he says. The meat is cured after slaughter in windowless rooms that are cooled and heated artificially. This doesn't seem like such a bad idea, until Gomez starts to describe it. "If we were stuck in an elevator for 90 days, I suppose we'd smell pretty bad, too," he says.

After slaughter, his Gran Reserva hams hang for 24 months in a curing cellar -- called a bodega, the same as a wine cellar -- and are rubbed periodically with salt and other spices. "The secret is many things, passed down from father to son," Gomez says, but the cooling breeze that wafts through the partially open shutters and lets the hams age naturally is at the heart of the difference between Joselito and other hams. Gomez strides through the bodega, moving at full speed, and proudly points out where each particular ham is headed: this one to a renowned Spanish restaurant, that one to a top distributor in Paris, and another to one of the very few retail outlets that can get his products. It is a surreal scene: these hundreds of hams hanging from the ceiling like punching bags, each covered with the dust of a precious bacteria.

Raising and curing your pigs this way costs money, but Gomez knows he can get it back. For those who would procure his hams to sell to their best customers, price is rarely a consideration. Joselito hams cost as much as three times more than any other ham by the time they reach a restaurant or a gourmet shop, perhaps $20 for a small plate.

Still, the customer list for Joselito's Gran Reserva hams is at capacity; openings occur mostly after restaurants go out of business or distribution firms close. Joselito produces just 60,000 hams in an average year. Gomez notes that some restaurants can run through 10 of them in a week -- and far more than that if he's passing through.

Because of bureaucratic red tape, Joselito Gran Reserva hams are not yet available in the United States. Gomez is hopeful that they soon will be, but he isn't sure where he'll find the meat to feed a ham-hungry nation of some 280 million. "It may be a question of five hams here and 10 hams there," says Jorge Ordoñez, an importer of Spanish wine, who will handle distribution of the Joselito hams if they ever reach this side of the Atlantic.

For now, Americans who want to taste a Joselito Gran Reserva ham have to take a trip, and they'd better know where they're going. In Seville the week after Easter Sunday, the crowd from that afternoon's bullfight, locals and tourists alike, streams into a restaurant called Mesón de la Infanta, several blocks from the bullring.

It is one of only a handful of restaurants in Seville that serves Joselito Gran Reserva ham, but that isn't the only ham it serves. You must ask for Joselito by name. That and the equivalent of $25 will get you a plate of ham, and a knowing nod.

Along the wood-topped bar, plates of the lighter-colored ham of another producer appear, one after another, beside the glasses of fino Sherry and baskets of bread bits. Here and there, you can spot a plate of Joselito. "Absolutely the best," says José Mar'a Aranda, who is working behind the bar. He pauses for a moment to rhapsodize. "Nothing like it in all of Spain."

Gomez himself is supposed to be in Seville that afternoon for the annual April fair of bullfights and late-night revelry, part of his annual tour of events and extravaganzas in Europe and beyond. If he were in Seville, you can be sure, he'd be eating his own ham at the Infanta, but all that good living has taken its toll. He offers apologies from the other end of a cell phone from his home in Guijuelo. "My kidneys," he says. "Or maybe my liver. I can't tell."

No matter. His ham has preceded him. The bullfight he was supposed to see wasn't so interesting, he's told, and now rain is starting to fall. He is better off in bed, resting up for the parties, dinners and tastings to come. He can't be everywhere, all the time.

There is silence on the line as he digests this advice.

"I suppose," he tells the friend. "But be sure to eat my ham for me."

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