Guijuelo, a small town in the province of Salamanca: here, since 1932, Jamones Blázquez has been the owner of a know-how unique in the world, linked to the production of Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, the absolute excellence of the world’s pork butchery. Now in its fourth generation, this family of breeders has managed to transform what was already a gastronomic marvel into a gourmet masterpiece, appreciated by the most demanding chefs, maîtres and luxury gourmets from over 30 countries.
Cardenal went looking for the “cerdos”, the black hoofed pigs that graze freely in the fincas of Blázquez, between the oak forests of Extremadura and Andalusia.
Yes, if we were to represent the podium of the best hams in the world, on the highest step we would find him, the Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, the excellence of the world’s pork butchery, produced by pigs with a black coat and a black hoof nail, hence Pata Negra.
There is only one place in the whole world where these pigs are raised and become a gourmet excellence: in Guijuelo, a small town in the province of Salamanca. A recognized and regulated PDO where 80% of all Bellota pigs are produced.
Here, among oak forests and large fields, is the headquarters of Jamones Blázquez, master butchers for more than 90 years.
A family of breeders who knew how to transform what was already a gastronomic wonder into a gourmet masterpiece, appreciated by the most demanding chefs, maîtres and luxury gourmets from over 30 countries.
But what is the secret behind such excellence? The answer to this question is simple but it requires an in-depth and exciting narrative to be fully appreciated. So make yourself comfortable, because the story we want to tell you starts with something very small: an acorn.
The link between the black hoofed pigs and the oaks that cover large portions of this area of western Spain – between the province of Salamanca and the regions of Extremadura and Andalusia – is intimate and vital.
This is because the oak forests not only represent the ideal habitat in which pigs live free, but also because they produce the only food they eat and are very fond of, acorns.
It is a bond that is renewed every year, in autumn, when the montanera period begins, when Blázquez releases a selection of its best Iberian pigs so that they can feed and fatten in the most natural environment possible, living in the wild on more than 30,000 hectares reserved for grazing.
When released into the wild, the pigs weigh around 90 kg, and by the end of the montanera period, between January and March, they will reach over 180 kg. They will gain 1 kg a day by eating 10 kg of acorns every 24 hours.
But in order for the pigs to reach the ideal weight, relying exclusively on a diet based on acorns, their density must be very low: one pig every two hectares of land. And a few years even less, because every montanera is different from the other, as it happens for the wine harvests.
There are “good” years when acorns are many and big and there are years when the land is more stingy and gives its fruits in smaller quantities. The ham will thus have better vintages and less good vintages. It is up to those who raise pigs – and in this Blázquez can count on four generations of master butchers – to understand how to proceed.
This is the first of the secrets of the excellence of Blázquez hams: wide open spaces, very few pigs free to graze in packs, acorns rich in oleic acid that will give their meat a unique flavour, colouring the fat of the characteristic coral colour that literally melts in the mouth, for one of the most extraordinary taste experiences ever.
At the end of the montanera, when the pigs have doubled their initial weight, they are slaughtered in order to provide them with as little stress as possible. The period of the year – between the end of January and the end of March – when slaughtering takes place is also covered by the PDO regulations.
The hams (jamones) and shoulders (paletas) are trimmed before being salted. A layered pyramid of hams and whole sea salt is made.
In order to ensure that all the meat receives a homogeneous brine, Blázquez’s workers move the hams that were on top the day before, rotating them into the pyramid.
This process lasts a different period of time each time: it is the expertise and experience gained over years of trade and craftsmanship that determines when the perfect time to move on to the drying stage.
A valuable know-how that Blázquez has not only preserved but refined from generation to generation.
The hams will lose the first moisture inside the secaderos – cold rooms with controlled humidity and temperature – for about three weeks.
At this point, we are at the gates of the summer season. It is time to move the hams to the upper floors of the establishments where the natural secaderos are located. These are very large rooms where the jamones will spend the whole summer and lose most of their weight drying out. Here they will be caressed by the wind wisely channeled by the master craftsmen who will open and close doors and windows according to a scheme known and handed down to a few able to create the perfect air current for ideal drying.
Autumn is back and the hams are now taken to the cellar where they will complete the curing process for at least 30 months: a very slow curing process that will lead them to be the gastronomic excellence that can never miss at every banquet.
For us at Longino & Cardenal, Blázquez reserves the selection of the best jamones with our logo.
At dinner with Isidoro Blázquez, Longino discovers that the secret of the excellence of the famous Jamon de Bellota Admiracion is all hidden in the small fruits that pigs feed on: acorns.
Convivial, friendly, shared but above all, as the Spanish say to share: para compartir. Its place of choice is a plate in the exact center of the table, small portions, slices cut strictly by hand, no longer than 2, 3 centimeters long that everyone can, indeed must, enjoy in one mouthful. The use of the fork in this case is not required by etiquette, the fingers are fine.
To tell the truth, the Iberian Bellota Blázquez is not only the excellence of the world’s pork but his undisputed majesty, the ruler of all tapas.
It was born as a dish of great occasions: weddings, parties, ceremonies and celebrations, but over the years it has become a pleasant, delicious, habit to anticipate any kind of lunch. Better if in many. Because its deepest soul that emanates from its inimitable taste is its conviviality.
The magic of its flavour and the texture of its meat has a dual nature: a wild and an artistic one.
The former projects us into the fincas, the huge oak plots where Blázquez lets his best pigs, those with black hoof nails, run free and feed only on acorns.
The second, on the other hand, is linked to the mastery of an ancient know-how, an art that is handed down from generation to generation, that of el cortador.
The cortadores are a real institution, so much so that cutting championships are organized to designate who is the best among them.
There is no major recurrence in Spain that does not provide for the presence of one of them to prepare the lonchas, the delicious morsels of Iberian ham that melt in the mouth.
But what makes the taste of Blázquez’s Jamón Ibérico de Bellota so incomparable?
The answer lies in the thin veins of fat running through the meat muscle. A coral-colored fat that is the result of this exclusive nourishment.
If we add to this, the fact that Blázquez controls the entire production chain: from the oak pastures to the factories where the hams are made, it is clear that the entire process is geared to the highest quality.
Not only that, but also sustainability.
Because there is no more sustainable and dignified animal husbandry in the world than what Blázquez reserves for his cedros.
From a nutritional and organoleptic point of view, its jamones are rich in the oleic acid found in the acorns that pigs eat. A “good that doesn’t hurt” fat that is also suitable for those on a diet. A little curiosity: to judge the quality of the ham, try putting a plate with a Bellota loncha “on its feet”: if the slice remains attached to the plate, it means that the ham “has sweated the fat given by the acorn”, i.e. it is rich in oleic acid. Gentlemen, ladies, what you have before you is a 100% Jamón Iberico de Bellota. The word of Blázquez.