In Search of Exquisite Hams

There is a cave next to where he lives in Menorca. The cave intrigues him not because the military used to keep their arms and ammunition there, but because there is always some activity around the cave—men coming and going. The place is closely guarded. They won’t let him in. They laugh when he asks to go inside to have a look. The reason he wants to go inside is because this is where they cure the most famous hams in the world, which are Spain’s greatest contribution to world gastronomy: Jamón Iberico and Jamón Serrano. The place is like Fort Knox, not only because they want to keep out guys peeping in and seeing how they produce their famous hams, but because if even a mere fly were to enter here, the whole harvest of hams could be spoiled. The financial loss would be enormous, because these are also the most expensive hams in the world.  

The hams seem to haunt him. They are to be seen everywhere he goes: dangling from hooks, sold in the market places, in supermarkets, in delis, in the restaurants he frequents, even at the airport. When he goes into a bar, he sits down and orders a glass of Rioja and a Serrano ham sandwich. The barman comes along with a knife, which he sharpens a few times on a honing-steel until the blade is razor-sharp. The fat covering the meat has been burnished to a deep golden brown and first has to be cut away before the ham is sliced. The meat itself is dark and reddish, with beautiful whitish marbled veins running through it. The thinner the slices of ham, the better the taste. If you warmed your plate, as they do in fancy restaurants, the gossamer-thin slices of jamón would just about melt in your mouth. But this is a bar and there’s nothing fancy like that here, except for their beautiful jamóns. The barman cuts him two very thin slices from the ham, puts them on some bread and drizzles olive oil over it and charges him 10 Euros. He pays it happily because when he experiences the nutty, sweet taste he feels good about life. He thinks to himself: “Why can’t I learn to do this?” 

His name? Jason Lucas. Born in the UK, but now living in South Africa, he restores houses in Menorca and does some photography. He’s married to the daughter of the guy who owns Horse & Hound in England. But he loves food. Once he’s back in Prince Albert in the Little Karoo he continues to thatch houses. And in his spare time he experiments with food. He cures olives in sherry casks, he ferments chilli sauce in an oak barrel for more than a year … but all the while he’s thinking about those Spanish hams. He can’t get them out of his mind.  And then luck comes his way. 

When one of his best friends marries Belen, a Spanish girl, they become good friends, and one day he speaks what’s on his mind. “Belen,” he begins, “Do you know anyone in Spain who would teach me how to make those hams?” Belen laughs, which is a disappointment. It reminds him of the way they laughed at him at the cave in Menorca. Belen says, “My great-grandfather made Serrano hams; my grandfather made Serrano hams; my father makes Serrano hams, and today my sister also makes Serrano hams.” She looks at him and says: “But I will ask my father when I go back to Spain.”

A month later Belen arrives with her father, ostensibly on holiday. Her father, whose name is Manuel, is no longer young; he is 75 years old and he is a Catalan. The two men go up the mountain together but they hardly speak. Manuel speaks only Catalan which Jason does not understand. But the old man makes a careful study of the environment; he sniffs the air, he tastes the water from the springs. 

What Manuel is doing is deciding if this is the right environment for curing hams. Height above sea level, as well as the purity of the air and water, are of critical importance. In Spain, Serrano hams are made at high altitude, where the air is pure and free of pollution. In fact, Serrano refers to ‘mountain’, thus ‘mountain hams’. Manuel leaves again and he does not mention teaching him. This is a great disappointment to Jason. But a month later Manuel calls and says he is prepared to teach him. Jason travels to Spain where, for a year, he is inducted into the arcane art of making Serrano ham, a rare honour for a foreigner.  

Back in Prince Albert, Jason puts into practice what he has learnt. From time to time the old man comes to visit to see how his apprentice is faring.  “Hmm … not bad,” he seems to be saying. When he leaves, they continue communicating through emails, which Belen interprets. One day Jason complains to the old man that he’s losing too much of the ham’s weight. He receives a reply from the old man instructing him that he should rub a mixture (he explains how to make up the mixture) into the ham to prevent this. When Jason complains that he should have told him this in the first place, Belen, who interprets, tells him: “My father says you can’t be told everything at once.” 

That is the Catalan way. You cannot learn everything at once. Everything takes time. Especially curing jamón Serrano. 

Like so many delicacies today, Serrano hams were also born of necessity.  Farmers would slaughter their pigs before the onset of the harsh winters, and to preserve the meat, they would cure it with salt. These hams would sustain the families through the bitterly cold months in the mountains. Today, according to Jason, a Serrano sandwich in London can cost you as much as R1 000. He sells his Belotta hams (which means the pigs were fed only acorns) for R3 000 to R3 500 a ham. A ham typically weighs around 6–7 kg.  

“What they eat is of the greatest importance,” Jason says. “I made ham from pigs that ate rubbish, and I had to throw away the hams. Now, every pig I use will be fitted with a microchip telling me the history of the pig—what he ate and what he weighs at all times. The fact that the pigs get exercise is also of vital importance, for the perfect ratio between fat and for marbleising the hams.” For Serrano ham, he adds, everything has to be perfect. And this perfection has much to do with purity, which is why it’s imperative they are raised organically.

We are sitting at the Brewers & Union in Cape Town where I am told this story outside on the terrace overlooking the cobblestone square in the heart of the city. Jason has come to deliver his Serrano hams, which he sells under his label, Lucas Jamón. It is a late-autumn day, but the sun is shining and it’s warm for this time of the year. I am having one of their beers. It is delicious and expensive. The heat, the square, it all reminds me of the days spent in Spain. I think of La Ramblas. 

“Jason, why did Manuel agree to teach you?” I ask. “Because I am four fingers,” he says. He explains that in Catalonia, the old people have a custom. If they like you, they press their fingers to your forehead. He received four fingers. A full house would be five fingers, like a star rating for a top hotel. Belen’s husband, the old man’s son-in-law, received only two fingers. He chuckles but does not gloat. Neither is he smug. Four fingers. The four fingers that changed the course of his life.

Jason has another project on the go, making jamón with Anthony Rawbone-Viljoen of Oak Valley Estate. The Elgin estate has perfect conditions for making jamón, and even 4 000 oak trees. Anthony will provide the pigs and their Serrano jamón will be marketed under a joint label—and so will add yet another item to the list of locally-produced delicacies.