A tiny organic pig farm called Dehesa Maladúa in Cortegana, a small village in south-western Spain, produces unconventional special Spanish ham.
Due to the organic process, the rare breed and unique environment it sells for €4,100 (£3,600) a leg – which makes it one of the most expensive hams in the world. Only a Taishi bellota ham sold in 2020 at nearly 12.000 euro tops this.
The cost is high because each pig takes three years to reach maturity. There is also no guarantee that it will develop to produce legs of sufficiently high quality meat.
To further complicate matters, the special Manchado de Jabugo pig sometimes fail to produce the dark pigmentation in their hoofs that has become one of the distinguishing features of Iberian ham (pata negra).
The pig is a special breed of Iberian pig and it has black spots. In contracts with the Spanish black Iberian pigs, famous for Iberian ham or ‘jamon iberico’. ‘Jamon’ is ham in Spanish.
Eduardo Donato runs the farm. He used to be a property developer from Catalonia and sold his construction company in the 90s. He runs a virtually one-man operation – aided only by his daughter Marta and a neighbor, who also helps out from time to time.
I found this story about Eduardo Donato surfing the Internet. And although you can find it in more blogs or news sites I still want to share this story also here in our blog.
Donato’s farm is located in the Sierra de Aracena and Picos de Aroche Natural Park – part of a Unesco-protected biosphere reserve. This ‘dehesa’ ecosystem contains giant cork oak trees that are hundreds of years old.
The dehesa is a savannah-like grassland or pasture. It normally is rich in olives, nuts, and berries, but especially in acorns, or “bellotas” in Spanish. Acorns are rich in nutrients and fatty acids. Basically, a superfood for pigs. They walk every day about 14 kilometers through the dehesa and hills with oaks.
It would be impossible for farmers like Donato to recreate the conditions of the ‘dehesa’ elsewhere. Because it takes so long to grow trees big enough to produce the quantity of acorns needed to feed the pigs.
The different species of oak tree found in the forest produce acorns at from mid-autumn until early spring. For the rest of the year, the pigs feed on grass, olives, nuts, berries and roots that they come across in the dehesa. They also eat organic cereals and legumes and drink spring water.
The History of Dehesa Maladúa
Up until 1989, Eduardo Donato owned a profitable construction company in the city of Tarragona. He specialized in the restoration of 15th and 16th century buildings.
The story is that he had a good and comfortable life. His business was doing fine. But then, one of his closest colleagues died from cancer. Another one died of a heart-attack. With all the stress of life in the big city and managing his business, he did not want to be the next.
To make matters worse, petrochemical and nuclear plants had “disfigured” his beautiful city. Donato realized he didn’t want to live there anymore.
After selling his business, Eduardo Donato came to the area near Jabugo in 1989 in search of a quiet life in connection with nature. He bought some land with no real plan rather than to enjoy the peace and quiet and maybe raise horses.
The small town of Cortegana had everything he was looking for – plenty of vegetation, biodiversity, adequate rainfall, spring water and very little pollution. “I spent five years doing nothing but observing nature,” he told Spanish newspaper El Periodico.
When he had enough of enjoying the natural beauty of his new home, he realized that he had to do something constructive again. The oak forests stretching out as far as the eye could see, and the abundant supply of acorns gave him the answer.
The Black and the Spotted Pig
After observing his farming neighbours raise pigs, around 1995 he bought some black pigs.
In 2005, Eduardo Donato learned of a breed called Spotted Jabugo (Manchado de Jabugo) , after the local government started offering specimens to farmers, at a symbolic price. They were a rare variety of the Iberian breed with nlack spots. The local government had kept them to help preserve the variety
No pig farms wanted them, because they grow much slower than other breeds,. They yield less meat and some specimens are born with white hooves, instead of the black pigment that has become a trademark of the special Spanish ham from black pigs.
To him, those were all advantages, because he didn’t plan on raising them for money. And yet, he ended up producing the world’s best and most expensive and special Spanish ham.
He began learning as much as he could about pig breeding and ham curing. He then created a company that he registered with the Spanish Ecovalia organic products certification. Ecovalia carries out up to six checks each year on the animals that have thier habitat in Donato’s 80 hectares of woodland.
Taking advice from the other farmers, he started to breed them and eventually produced his first jamón (Spanish for ham) almost a decade later. Unlike his neighbours, he decided to raise them organically, without antibiotics or hormones to boost growth and using feed produced without chemicals.
There are no plans to expand. A bigger herd could put strain on the dehesa, potentially disrupting a delicate balance and affecting the quality of both the environment and the product. Much of the value of his Iberian ham also lies in its rarity, so it also makes sense to keep it in short supply.
A Rare Variety of Iberian Pig
Pigs of the Iberico or Iberian breed are typically black. Apart from black pigs they breed, about 200 pigs at Dehesa Maladúa are a reddish brown with dark spots. The Spanish call this extremely rare variety of the Iberian breed ‘Manchado de Jabugo’ – ‘spotted Jabugo’ in English.
The variety was close to extinction due to a preference for black varieties, which consumers more easily accepted and easier to breed and raise.
The Manchado de Jabugo breed was also hit by the swine fever epidemic of 1958, and then fell out of favor with farmers because it takes longer to reach maturity and is less fertile than other strains.
People credit Eduardo Donato, together with others in his village, with saving the Manchado de Jabugo pig from extinction 25 years ago. From this they produce the exclusive special Spanish ham “Jabugo Manchado” by “Dehesa Maladúa” under the label “Jamones Ecológicos de Jabugo”.
Organically raised Manchado de Jabugo pigs need three years to reach the ideal slaughter weight – 170kg. This is more than twice as long as most Iberian pigs raised using regular, non-organic methods.
Pigs that have reached their ideal weight are slaughtered at the end of winter after spending three to four months eating nothing but acorns, grass and other plants. Then, once the pig is ready to be ‘sacrificed’ (killed to be slaughtered), the special Spanish ham is aged for three years, and cured for another four to seven years, in his cellar. That’s up to ten years until the jamón can be sold.
Many of these acorn-producing oak trees grow on a savannah-like grassland or pasture called a dehesa. The dehesa can only be found in central and southern Spain and in various areas of neighbouring Portugal. It is a unique agriculture-forestry-grazing system created and maintained by the interaction between low-density animal grazing, traditional arable farming and forests of mostly holm and cork oaks.
The dehesa has evolved from naturally woodlands that have been altered by the grazing of livestock like pigs, goats and bulls. This grazing prevents shrubs from growing, but preserves the prairie and large oak trees. Some farmers use the trees for farming cork. The ecosystem is very diverse. For example there are also deer and birds of prey.
A pig must eat nearly 10 kgs of acorns a day. One singular tree can only produce 300kgs during one season. This means that there must be a trees on a lot of dehesa for the pigs to walk around in.
The Process of Dry-Curing this Special Spanish Ham
While good jamón is traditionally cured for at least three years, Eduardo Donato spends up to seven years drying his ham in a local, family-run cellar. He first buries the legs in salt for around a week before washing and hanging them in a temperature-controlled room where they stay for three months.
From there, they are hung for up to a year and a half in an airy room at the top of the storehouse – where the windows are left open to allow the mountain breezes in. After that, the legs are moved to the basement, where they spend another four to five years curing. Eventually they are cleaned up, boxed and ready to be sold.
Eduardo Donato produces just 80 legs of ham each year.
Donato goes all out to guarantee the wellbeing of his animals. Their products are certified as organic, and, appropriately, the production is strictly limited to protect the environment.
A homeopath treats Eduardo Donato’s animals. He cures cuts and grazes with a mixture of extra virgin olive oil and ash from the holm oaks that populate the hills of Huelva. He also de-worms and treats them for parasites with a special recipe made from mint and sunflower seeds.
Taste and Pork Health Benefits
Its color is dark-red and glossy. It is fat is white and fine. It has an intensive aroma. Its overall flavor is salty and sweet at the same time. The taste is nutty. You can taste the acorn in it. It’s nice and greasy, adds a bit more of a buttery texture.
And the marbling as well. Because these pigs are smaller than the usual pigs, and there is more muscles in their legs rather than fat. It is very tender, and it really has a different flavor compared to other hams.
The special Spanish ham is also good for your health. It is rich in protein, vitamins B1 and B6 and healthy minerals. For instance, it is a natural medicine against anemia. Among the health benefits of jamón ibérico we can find oleic acid. This helps combat cardio-vascular diseases, and unsaturated fats, beneficial for lowering cholesterol.
Where to Buy
They sell the hams now throughout Europe and as far Hong Kong. People are happy to pay a premium price for the jamon – knowing they are acquiring a unique product as well as helping to save a rare breed.
What is more, Manchado de Jabugo ham not only tastes wonderful – but there are also health benefits of eating this kind of pork.
The acorn-fed pigs are expensive. You can find the ham at good restaurants in Spain. More and more online shops sell them (in the U.S. at La Tienda). At Amazon you can buy a 13-pound boneless ham, aged 18 months, for around $240.