Hammin’ It Up at the Ham Festival of Aracena

The winner of the ham slicing contest

The winner of the ham slicing contest

A friend came to visit and said she was sick of ham in Spain! Hush, we told her, ham is sacred here. This friend is Jewish, and doesn’t do ham. And while there is plenty to eat that is not swine, let’s face it, Spain loves ham. Sliced, cured, stuffed into sausage and deep-fried, pork is big here. Eating pig’s feet is pretty normal. If you love ham as much as any good Spaniard, then Cat Gaa, our expert in Seville, has the scoop on a festival this month that is not to be missed. Oink, oink.

By Cat Gaa

The only indication Aracena gave that there was a ham festival was the ham and tomato toasts we consumed straight off the bus.

Rolling into the dusty bus station of the town nestled in the Sierra de Huelva, we expected signs announcing the exalted local product, jamón ibérico de bellota (cured ham), or to see pigs running throughout the town fabled for its caves and thinly sliced ham. Instead, we had old men sitting in their doorways, whittling.

Vendors Hall - Aracena Ham Festival

Vendors Hall – Aracena Ham Festival

Between us and the fairgrounds, situated at the southern end of the city, sat Aracena’s ruined castle and cathedral. We wandered the streets of the beautiful white village, sniffing out ham – as well as signs of life. It seemed the entire pueblo had headed south, abandoning the signs posted around town boasting menus full of pig parts and the sale of the salted and dried hind legs.

I have a strange connection to the food I’ve grown to love. My partner’s father raises the pata negra, or black-footed pigs, on the opposite end of the Sierra, making pork part of my well-balanced Spanish diet. I’ve eaten every last part of the animal, so my attendance at the Feria has become imminent each third weekend of October.

As we neared the top of the hill, a crackly loudspeaker announced, “Ten minutes until the contest to find Southern Spain’s best ham slicer begins. Cortadores (slicers), please present yourselves at the stage.” Anyone can slice a ham, but being named the best ham slicer in Andalusia is an honor bestowed on the person who slices the thinnest, uses the best technique and presents the best plate of ham among the finalists. After crowning the champion, a local from Aracena, we had only one thing on our minds: consumption.

Cat and friends with a leg of ham

Cat and friends with a leg of ham

The fairgrounds, while small, is packed with a U-shaped vendor’s hall, displaying cheese, bread and pork products from around the region that offer free samples. There’s also a stocked corral for anyone interested in buying their own pig, and families bring picnics of fried pork and Spanish omelete. We found the shade of a low-hanging tree ripe with acorns, laughing as we pigged out under it, just as the patas negras would.

We did lunch the Spanish way, by having one person in charge of the bote, or communal bank. For 15€ each, we could eat our fill of nearly every part of the pig, wash it down with beer, and still have enough at the end to get a chorizo link each to take home.

If consuming the jamón isn’t for you, Aracena also has two lovely museums – one entirely devoted to ham, and the other an underground cave called the Gruta de las Maravillas, discovered by local children in the 1850s.

(Extra scoop: the entrances are limited to 1000 a day, so steer here first to get a ticket. Open daily from 10:00 to 13:30 and 15:00 to 18:00, 8,50€).

This year marks the XVII edition of the Feria Regional del Jamón in Aracena, to be celebrated the 19th – 21st of October. Buses tend to run a bit more frequently between Seville and Huelva on this weekend, though taking a car is the easiest way to reach the village.

How to get there: Take the Vía de la Plata (A-66) north from Sevilla, veering onto the N-433 just after Las Pajanosas. From Huelva, the N-435 North will bring you straight to the village.

Have you tried Spanish ham? Are you a fan?

Upon receiving an offer to work at a radio news broadcast center in Chicago, Cat Gaa turned it down and turned up at the Consulate of Spain. Five years and daily cravings for Cruzcampo later, she writes at Sunshine and Siestas about Sevilla (between bites of jamón, of course!). Follow her on instagram and twitter at@sunshinesiestas.

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