As we celebrate our Greentraveller's Guide to Las Alpujarras, in association with Inntravel, Paul Bloomfield heads to the region to get a taste for ham-drying and home-cooking around Mairena and discovers that the flavours of Las Alpujarras reflect the ingredients, lifestyles and history of its people.
Do you have a pig? Is it well fed, perhaps having munched plenty of acorns during its free-ranging daily snuffling? And finally, do you have a spare €650?
If the answers to these questions is yes, you could be in for the meatiest treat of your life. Simply head to Jamones Muñoz in the small village of Yegen, in the eastern Alpujarra, drop off your porker and – after a suitable interval – you’ll have a larder stocked with the finest sausages and air-dried hams imaginable.
OK, €650 isn’t exactly cheap. But if you have a top-notch pig – perhaps a pata negra (‘black hoof’, a black Iberian), maybe bellota(acorn-fed) – and given the labour-intensive traditional artisanal methods used by this family-run outfit, which has producing its renowned hams and other goodies for well over half a century, it’s a price well worth paying.
I don’t have a pig of any kind, but after taking a brief tour of Jamones Muñoz with Isabel, I almost wished I did. This area, you see, is famed for its air-cured (mountain ham); the cool, almost supernaturally dry air of the higher southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada creates the perfect conditions for dehydrating pork. In some parts of Las Alpujarras, production has expanded vastly – head to Trevélez, for example, and you’ll find upwards of 20 producers, with perhaps a million hams hanging to dry at any one time.
Jamones Muñoz is very much a small, artisanal outfit, but even so my jaw dropped at the sight of some 30,000 hams hanging in a refrigerated warehouse. All had been salted, massaged and lovingly coated in manteca – a preserving balm of fat and oil, like a natural cellophane wrap – before being hung for upwards of a year. They’re checked regularly (the outsides are tapped to check they’re curing properly, and manteca re-applied if necessary), and carefully labelled with origin, classification and weight before and after drying. If its up to scratch, 18 months or even three years later, a gran reserva jamón is taken down and carved with the loving care and precision that such a superbly crafted delicacy deserves.
Once we’d gawped at the ranks of drying hams, Isabel herded us into the back room of the shop for an impromptu tasting. Along with tissue-thin slices of were produced and sliced: chorizo, of course, but also salchichón (more like salami), longaniza(similar to chorizo, but with black pepper in place of paprika) and delectable lomo, tenderloin coated with salt and pepper and lovingly cured. Home-made wine was sipped and declared dangerously swiggable – something none of us was expecting when it was sloshed from the large plastic jerry-can.
The idea of having ham dried from your own pig is very much in tune with the culinary ethos of the Alpujarra. There’s no pretension – just a knowledge of what tastes best, and an instinct for using whatever ingredients are to hand.
A cookery lesson with Conchi and Sole, the kitchen maestros at the charming Las Chimeneas guesthouse in nearby Mairena, followed the same theory. With what do you stuff your aubergines? Well, of what do you have a glut? Here it might be tomatoes, onions or courgettes, with plenty of your own olive oil, of course, and topped with your home-made goats’ cheese.
The act of cooking was similarly instinctive. Both of these women learned their craft in a kitchen without a table or worktop, so onions were chopped in the hand, twisting and slicing the bulbs with slick dexterity. They’d had no cooker as we know it, either; instead, a big burner like a hefty camping stove was topped with a large pan, into which was tossed a healthy glug of olive oil, followed by those rustically sliced onions and the rest of the ingredients.
The same process was repeated for each dish, so that within an hour, a whole menu was miraculously produced. Chunks of tomato, garlic, apple, peppers and bread were thrown together and blended to make a creamy gazpacho – an ever-present in summer, when an abundance of tomatoes ensures a never-ending supply. Jugs of gazpacho are crammed into fridges, hauled out when a cool, savoury drink is needed. Ajo blanco, white almond soup, followed a similar procedure, though without the tomatoes. Aubergines were stuffed, chicken casserole simmered, orange and fig salad drizzled with just a few drops of orange-blossom water for a refreshingly floral dessert.
As the heat of the June afternoon lifted, I took a pre-dinner stroll down to the finca of David and Emma Illsley, owners of Las Chimeneas, to admire the source of some of the ingredients. If I’d ever been in doubt of the appeal of life in Las Alpujarras, it swiftly leached away. At almost any spot on the terraced smallholding I was within plucking distance of a cherry or a kaki (persimmon), a deliciously sweet nispero (Japanese quince), apricot or olive. The scent of wild mint, crushed underfoot, infused the air; courgettes and aubergines burgeoned in vegetable beds.
No-one with an understanding of local history would be blasé enough to call this region a land of plenty. Even with the irrigation marvels of the acequias (water-channel network) installed centuries ago by the Moors, life here has always been pretty demanding. Things are a little easier today, certainly, though people still work very hard to get by. And fuel as delicious as that I’d tasted today must provide at least some recompense.
Words by Paul Bloomfield
Jamones Muñoz has a tempting shop selling its hams and other pork products, along with crafts, wines, cheeses, honey, jams and other locally produces goodies, in Yegen. Ask to be shown the production for the lowdown on drying hams the artisanal way.
Las Chimeneas is a delightful guesthouse occupying several houses around the main square in the little village of Mairenas, has a wonderful restaurant where Conchi and Sole dish up a daily changing dinner menu; expect ajo blanco (white almond and garlic soup), gazpacho, stuffed aubergines and a host of local dishes, along with sinfully delicious cakes. Cookery classes can be organised as part of a stay, and chefs including Sam Clark of renowned London restaurant Moro tutor at dedicated cooking holidays.