Spanish treats

By Helga and Larry Hampton [email protected]

Helga and Larry Hampton, a German-American couple, have had a villa in the Algarve since 1972 and since 1990 have spent the majority of their time in Portugal. One of Helga’s major interests is cooking. One of Larry’s main interests is eating, and finding lovely wines to complement, Helga’s meals. In their new monthly column, the couple share their passion for good food and wine with our readers.

Do you ever hop across the Guadiana bridge to fill your tank in Ayamonte with the much cheaper Spanish petrol?

Well we do, and from time to time we make it a day out for shopping and for having a nice lunch.  Our favourite lunch place in Ayamonte is the Meson Juan Macias by the yacht harbour, where you get the best products from Jabugo.

You don’t know Jabugo?  Well, now there is a good topic for Table Talk.

Jabugo is a small town north west of Sevilla in the foothills of the Sierra de Huelva (near Aracena) “where the best hams (jamon) in the world are produced” according to Juan Pedro Domecq.

Meson Juan Macias is a favourite of ours.
Meson Juan Macias is a favourite of ours.

In Spain, this means jamon iberico. In Portugal, you will ask for presunto Pata Negra, but I shall get to that later.

Producing best quality Spanish jamon is dependent on the breed of animal, the environment and the method of curing. The pigs (sus scrofa mediterraneus) are an indigenous breed and an ancient (Phoenician) cross between the Celtic pig and the Iberian javali.

They have a small head, short neck, black skin and black hooves, hence pata negra.  Their meat is marbled with fat rather than having a layer of fat, i.e. no bacon; this gives the pork a special consistency.

The special flavour comes from their food and their “lifestyle”. They are, in contrast to their more common domestic pig, an active, exclusively outdoor animal that forages in limitless freedom in the extensive tracts of land where olive trees, holm and cork oaks grow.

Plateful of char-grilled slices of pork from the different parts of the body
Plateful of char-grilled slices of pork from the different parts of the body

Acorns are their main fodder, supplemented only by roots and wild herbs. One of their genetically specific features is that they can store in their muscle mass large deposits of lipids derived from the fine acorn oil.

When the animal has reached its ideal weight of 120-160kg in approximately 18 months, it is ready to do its finest service to man:  after being expertly dispatched from its life in the healthy surroundings of the dehesa (Spanish) or montado (Portuguese) – open wild land like the Alentejo –  it will undergo age-old cutting and curing traditions.

The front legs (shoulders) and hind legs (hams) will now spend 24 hours in eight to 12ºC, then soak for eight to 10 days in brine.

After being rinsed off, they will rest in dark, quiet maturation rooms for 60 days, all the while losing water until the desired texture, colour and aroma are reached with the help of natural microbial flora.

It can now take up to three years in naturally aired cellars before the best quality hams go to market but more usual are 18 to 30 months for large hams, 10 to 18 months for the smaller shoulders.

This process is strictly regulated in Spain. Using terms like Bellota, Iberico and Pata Negra is expressly forbidden for products that do not comply with the Royal Decree 1083/2001.

Recently a “DOC” grading has been introduced so that “Jamon de Huelva, Designation of Origin” will ensure that you are getting the best of the best.

Ordering a plate of jamon iberico at Meson Juan Macias in Ayamonte will take a while, because each portion is finely sliced right in front of you with the proper knife on a proper stand, and the ruby red slivers of meat will be marbled with lustrous fat that is soft to the touch.

Don’t commit the crime I did at the beginning! Don’t tear off the fat, thinking you are avoiding yucky calories. This fat, besides tasting delicious is nutritious, with a high protein content composed of unsaturated fatty acids.

Don’t insult your host by leaving it on the side of your plate.

A plateful of this delicacy is the best start of any meal. In fact, it is the very best in-between meal or tapas imaginable, and one of the most cherished components of Spanish cuisine.

So what happens to the rest of the now legless animal, you may ask?  Well, that is what Larry and I usually have next – a “Parrillada Iberica”. This is a plateful of char-grilled slices of pork from the different parts of the body, more or less fat (secretos, pluma), with house cut chips and sausages – don’t forget the sausages in Iberia! These vary regionally and are either smoked or dried, spicy or mild, but the pride of every pork producer.

Spanish ham production is not substantially different from the Portuguese “Porco Preto com Pata Negra”.  

You will see these black Portuguese four-legged cousins in many Alentejo areas, where they can gorge themselves amply on acorns from holm and cork oaks.  

My Portuguese friends, who grew up on a farm near Mértola, tell me that in their childhood there had always been these small, agile black porkers around until all of a sudden their father replaced them with the large, fat white hunks because they had more fat and made better and more sausages. Then, not too long ago, with global dietary consciousness in conjunction with the melt-down of the animosity between the two Iberian neighbours, Porco Preto became all the rage again.

In Spain, the Porco Preto products were becoming a major export item and so why not also from Portugal, which offered a similar habitat to the fashionable black footed supplier?

When you go to a good butcher, you will see a stand or two on which hams of different quality are waiting to be carved. I wonder whether you will detect a difference in taste between a true “Ibérico” or a “Pata Negra” …


I try, in these columns, to keep my wine suggestions priced under €20 because I feel strongly that Portugal offers a multitude of really excellent wines at affordable prices. However, very occasionally, I feel that the extraordinary nature of Helga’s food suggestion merits a truly extraordinary wine. This is one of those times.

Touriga Nacional is known as the Queen of Portuguese varietals and is widely grown throughout the country. A number of wineries offer a monocasta Touriga Nacional but one of the very best comes from Cortes de Cima, a pioneer in growing Touriga Nacional in the Alentejo.

Their highly prized single varietal has garnered gold medals, trophies and 90+ ratings galore and it deserves them all. It spends eight months in oak which, together with the specific characteristics of the grape, gives the wine an intense bouquet and flavour which complements Porco Preto beautifully. At a retail price of €44.50, it is certainly expensive, but there are only 5,200 bottles produced and I can assure you that a mouthful of Jamon de Jabugo washed down with a slurp of this Touriga Nacional is a sublime culinary experience.

However, if your pocketbook doesn’t stretch quite that far, a more than acceptable alternative is Herdade de Esporão’s Reserva. This is a blend of roughly equal quantities of Aragonês, Trincadeira, Cabernet Sauvignon and Alicante Bouschet.

The wine spends a year in oak and a year in bottle before being marketed. While certainly tasting different from a Touriga Nacional, this blend is quite intense and balances the strong, rich flavour of Porco Preto very nicely. Production is about 400,000 bottles a year and the retail price is an affordable € 16.

Both wines are big, full bodied and with 14 ½% alcohol, strong enough to make their presence known. Breathe deeply, swallow slowly, and enjoy!