By Chris McCullough

In an idyllic region of southern Spain seemingly unaffected as yet by climate change, a special breed of pigs roam the open countryside producing one of the world’s most famous meats.

These are Iberian pigs which are renowned for their outdoor lifestyles munching through hundreds of acorns that gives their special Jamon Iberico de Bellota its intense flavour.

Not only is this meat tasty, it brings with it some health properties due to its beneficial fat content, and it is protected under quality regulations.

The ham’s high proportion of oleic acid, around 63%, is a mono-unsaturated fatty acid that increases ‘good’ cholesterol and reduces ‘bad’ cholesterol levels.

This type of farming is a tradition that has been followed for decades with many generations of Spanish farming families perfecting their very own pig genetics over time.

One of those farmers, 64-year-old Fernando Adell, not only rears Iberian pigs, he also owns the family business, the Dehesa de Campo Alta processing facility in the north of the Cordoba province, close to Espiel.

Fernando Adell runs 400 pigs on his 700ha near Espiel in southern Spain

On his farm, only 15 minutes from the processing unit, Fernando runs 400 pigs across 700ha that enjoy a long healthy life before being slaughtered at 18- to 24-months-old.

Their meat is then matured for up to four years in salt before it is harvested by a master carver into the speciality ham.

Fernando said: “Our pigs enjoy a long life here in the Dehesa [Mediterranean forest], with the highest standards of animal welfare.

“They roam the open countryside eating acorns from the oak trees for their final three months before being slaughtered at 18- to 24-months.

“During this special feeding period, known as La Montanera, the pigs can eat up to 10kg of acorns per day, also eating the flowers and herbs in our pastures.”

The pigs are slaughtered around 160kgs to 190kg liveweight

Several generations of the Adell family have helped shape farming in the region, which has now culminated in the Dehesa de Campo Alto processing business.

Fernando, as did his predecessors, has perfected breeding and rearing the Iberian pigs, to such an extent he is recognised as an expert on them and the ham.

His pigs start their journey on another of his farms, before being weaned at three-months-old to start their fattening process.

Fernando is very proud of his full cycle business following the pigs through from birth to slaughter, and processing.

He said: “We receive around €600 for each pig prior to slaughter at 160kg to 190kg liveweight. The legs of ham themselves can sell for much higher prices, but the cost of butchery and carving the ham is also quite high.”

Hams are left to mature for up to four years

Within the closed production cycle of Iberian pigs, the key aim is to maintain production within a limited geographical area, preventing the entry and exit of animals from other areas.

This is achieved through breeding on the farm itself and the use of the natural resources of the pasture, such as acorns and other available foods.

Iberian region

This region where Fernando farms is covered by a Protected Designation of Origin Los Pedroches (PDO), which endorses the hard work the 700 farmers registered members endure to produce the meat.

Fernando said: “Our oak trees have graced this region for over 250 years and provide huge crops of acorns each year. We are based in a rather unique ecosystem here which remains unaffected by climate change.

“The pigs have plenty of space to roam on our farm, normally at a stocking rate of one pig per three hectares.

“Our pigs gain around 40% of their final weight, around 60kg liveweight, during the Montanera period,” he added.

Fernando explained that the region is also free from African Swine Fever and has been so since the 1980s and 1990s.

“Rearing the Iberian pigs within a closed cycle helps us stay free from disease,” he continued.

“Our region’s borders are also well protected against any movements of wild boars entering with any disease threats.”

Iberian pork

Dehesa de Campo Alto is one of the top producers of Iberian pork products, which is a result of the farm’s traceability, feeding system and high quality meat.

Fernando said: “Thanks to our first class raw materials and pigs bred freely since they are born, the traceability and control of every production process are a safe and excellent investment in the future.

“In fact, our only main challenge here on the farm is protecting our traditions and keeping our production systems the way they are, the same they have been for years,” he said.

After slaughter, the attention to detail, together with a great deal of patience, are the ingredients that give the ham its superior flavour.

Each piece of ham is distinguished by its intense red colour and leanness caused by a high rate of myoglobin and a white or pinkish fat that should yellow at its edges due to its slow maturation process.

Master carver Juan Angel Pulido has perfected his craft over many years

Watching the official master carver Juan Angel Pulido from Dehesa de Campo Alto at work is truly a form of art as he carefully carves each slice and places it on the serving dish.

Juan has spent many years perfecting his art and takes great pride when carving every individual slice.

He said: “It takes a lot of skill to rear the pig to slaughter and even more skill to professionally carve the hams. Our presentation of the hams to the customer is the final and one of the most important stages of the meat’s production cycle.