Mon, Aug 20, 2007 - Page 6 News List

FEATURE: Food fans lining up for Spain's priciest ham

AP , ALBURQUERQUE, SPAIN

Manuel Maldonado's pigs graze in Arronches, on the border between Spain and Portugal on Aug. 6. Maldonado is taking ham to new heights, pampering pigs with a free-range lifestyle and diet of acorns before slaughtering them and curing the meat for two years.

PHOTO: AP

Spanish cuisine tickles the palate in a thousand ways: ugly but delicious creatures called goose barnacles; boiled octopus with a dash of olive oil and paprika; thick, mushy sausage made from pig's blood.

Spaniards are nothing if not dedicated eaters.

Now, hard-core food fanatics are drooling over the prospect of something truly superlative from Spain, at least in price: a salt-cured ham costing US$2,100 per leg. It's a price believed to make it the most expensive ham in the world.

Don't grab your wallet just yet. And forget about asking for just a slice.

The 2006 Alba Quercus Reserve won't be available until late next year and you must buy the whole ham or nothing. But that hasn't dissuaded gastronomic Web sites from buzzing with talk of the farm where it is being produced, likening it to a Mount Olympus of pork.

Its mastermind, Manuel Maldonado, 44, comes from a long line of ham producers in a country that's nuts about the stuff. In bars and restaurants, legs of ham hanging from the wall are as common as TV sets.

But Maldonado is taking the art of the ham to new heights, pampering his pigs with a free-range lifestyle and top-quality diet of acorns before slaughtering them, then curing the meat for two years -- twice as long as his competitors.

Maldonado credits that last step with creating a delicacy that justifies the price.

He had hoped to roll out his ham this year, but felt the first batch fell short of his ultra-demanding standards. He hopes to do better this time and have it ready around Christmas next year.

This is a limited edition piece: Maldonado will produce just 80 to 100 legs.

With Spanish pigs bound for ham glory, diet is everything. The least expensive ham is made from pigs fed on grain, whereas mid-grade hams come from pigs raised on a combination of wheat and acorns.

Then there are Spain's poshest pigs, which feast exclusively on acorns, producing a rich flavor and oily texture that make the meat a delicacy. Spain's finest hams are not considered first-rate without an "acorn-fed" stamp on the label.

At least some gourmets apparently haven't been put off by the price of Maldonado's work. One food blog, Directo al Paladar, called the cost of the ham "almost a gift," considering how it is made.

Maldonado has yet to set a price for customers who buy the 6kg hams directly from him, but the food site Ibergour.com has a dozen for sale at US$2,100 each and is now accepting US$250 deposits for ham available next year.

Is it ridiculous to pay that for a piece of pig?

No, Maldonado says. A ham like this can be shared among 20 people, he notes, whereas a bottle of the finest wine going for the same amount goes down quickly among just a few.

For four generations, Maldonado's family has been making ham in this town of 5,000 in Spain's southwest Extremadura region.

Their herds of black Iberian beauties are kept on a handful of acorn-rich farms in the surrounding meadowlands, walking freely up to 10km daily without any swineherds to look after them.

After the pigs are butchered, they are cured in high-grade sea salts.

The hams then are brought into one of Maldonado's two warehouse-size cellars where they cure for two years, hanging on a series of interconnected hooks from floor to ceiling, like curtains.

Maldonado will only give a ham the top-grade seal if it passes his olfactory test after the curing process.

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