In a country where ham is king, Spain’s jamón ibérico reigns supreme.
Though other dry-cured Spanish hams abound, the pricey, rosy-hued, and deeply flavored Ibérico ham comes from a unique source: native Iberian pigs raised in Salamanca province and two other regions in Spain.
Sold throughout the country, the hams are on full, delectable display in the historic heart of Salamanca city at the Mercado Central, a 1909 public market next to plaza Mayor. Here, 17 butchers carve thin, off-the-hoof slices from a range of Ibéricos, including top-of-the-line bellota hams from free-range pigs on an acorn diet (about $59 per pound). For the best selection, locals recommend the counters of Javier Vicente or Hijos de Nicolás Hernández.
One block away, in the modern dining room of Restaurante Tablanca, chef Carlos Barco goes whole hog—literally—offering ham by the slice but also Ibérico pork dishes like an entire roast suckling pig and slow-cooked cheeks flavored with vanilla.
Thirty miles south, the faint fruity and nutty whiff of ham on the streets of Guijuelo is one clue that Ibérico production happens in this workaday town. During Spanish-language tours of ham-maker Julián Martín ($40, reservations required), you’ll enter a virtual cathedral of ham suspended in dark cellars, try your hand at carving, and sample bellota ham—washed down with good Spanish red wine.
This piece, written by Christopher Hall, appeared in the June/July 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler.