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Black beauty

Pata Negra, the common term for cured ham made from the Iberian black pig, is revered  as one of the finest hams in the world.

While Spain enjoys international recognition for this prized product, the Portuguese equivalent is all but unheard of outside of the country.

Since 1513 however, the oak tree ­dotted hills around the sleepy Alentejo town of Barrancos have been a protected area. The dry cool winters and long hot summers create the perfect conditions for the rearing and curing of Iberian black pig, officially designated here as Porco de Raça Alentejana.

The oak trees provide the acorns that are the secret ingredient in producing the best “Pata Negra” ham. It is only when the pigs are fed almost exclusively with acorns that the ham is labeled “Bolota” for the highest quality variety.

The pigs are slaughtered in late autumn and the legs (presuntos) and shoulders ­(paletas) are salted for roughly one day per kilo of weight before spending four to five months in the only technologically assisted part of the process – the drying room (secadeiro). The drying room ensures hygiene as well as allowing both the temperature and humidity to be controlled during this vital stage of curing.

In springtime, the hams are moved to the natural curing room where the idyllic conditions of the location are allowed to slowly work their magic. After 24 to 30 months of natural curing, the hams are at their optimum for consumption.

All cured ham should be eaten at room temperature and when thinly sliced straight off the bone, good Pata Negra makes a delectable accompaniment to aperitifs.