Border Crossing & Hanging Like Andaluscian Jamon

We expected some sort of fanfare when crossing the border from Portugal into Spain at Badajoz as the huge sign celebrating the Euro Cup 2004 which was held earlier this year in Portugal waved us goodbye and asked us to return soon.

Are we in Spain? Barely a sign and no border control. I find this amazing. While I've traveled to Europe extensively I usually stay in one country, then fly to the next. The only border I can remember crossing overland is that between France and Monaco. But then again, isn't Monaco just on a short lease from France? Or is that a leash?

No immigration check, no agricultural inspection, no searching the car for potentially hazards weapons that could do any kind of destruction. Nobody even wanted to know how many bottles of port we had bouncing around in the back seat. Oh, and let's not forget those nifty port glasses that feature a small notch in the stem — the perfect resting place for your thumb as you swirl, smell and taste.

Nothing. We were free to just jump the border. Nobody knew. Nobody cared.

As Tim peered over his glasses at our map he spotted the perfect route to Jabugo in Northern Andaluscia. Why Jabugo? We were on the trail looking for the legendary Iberian black-hoofed pigs. As I made my way through the winding roads of the Sierra Morena our eyes feasted on gentle rolling hills and the famous oak forests that drop the only food these free range pigs are allowed to eat — acorns. Like Serrano ham or prosciutto from Italy, Iberico Jamon Bellota is perhaps the ultimate gourmet cured meat.

In every restaurant, cafe and even the homes of the Andaluscian people you will find a leg of pork, hoof and all, resting on a specially designed holder, typically with an oak base, that fixes the leg at the ideal carving position. When they[base ']re not resting on its carving apparatus, these legs complete with their black hooves are hung in open air not unlike pots and pans in a kitchen. These legs were above our heads everywhere; at the bar, in the windows of shops throughout Jabugo and again in the homes of the local people. In the states you might find behind glass in temperature controlled display cases at the better steakhouses sides of beef hanging in full view for that steakhouse ambiance and drooling effect. But this ham is just hanging out. I'm sure the FDA would find some problem with this type of set up. No?

But in Andaluscia no matter where you go the jamon (ham) is always at room temperature and usually hanging. A refrigerator? Nah. The Iberica Jamon Bellota is cured in salt for and then hung to mature for at least two years before it's served. The ham is carved into thinly sliced bite-sized pieces and placed in a symmetrical pattern on a serving platter.

The full flavor of Iberica Bellota Jamon comes from the high fat content of the pig that was feted on acorns for its entire life. Ironically enough, this ham has earned its reputation as one of the healthiest and most nourishing items in the Mediterranean diet. It is rich in iron, magnesium, zinc, calcium, phosphorous, vitamins B1 and B2 and niacin. But enough of the nutrition jargon. Let's get back to the fat.

The primary constituent of the fact in this ham is oleic acid. For those who care, this promotes production of HDL (the GOOD cholesterol) while reducing LDL (the bad cholesterol>.

We squeaked into the tiny town of Jabugo — which is the jamon capital of Andaluscia — just before the typical Spanish siesta. As we dined on Jamon Iberica Bellota and a couple of beers the Jamon carver locked the doors. There we sat among dozens of hanging legs of the legendary black hoofed pigs of the Sierra Morena.

Photos: (1) Black hoofed Jamon Iberica Bellota ready for purchase at a local shop in Jabugo, Spain in Northern Andaluscia; (2) Typical bar/cafe in Jabugo and nearly everywhere else we ate in Andaluscia; the delicate jamon hanging out with the crowd and staff.