The classic images of Spanish culture usually come back to two notable creatures, the pig and the fighting bull. From Cervantes to Hemingway, Bunuel to Almodovar, references abound of dodging toros in the corrida or sampling a slice of jamon iberico with a chilled sherry.
Superior examples of both beasts originate in one of the prettier corners of Spain, the Sierra de Aracena, located towards the Portuguese border in the west, around seventy miles north of Seville in Andalucia.
Fashion, politics and ethical considerations mean there are no longer as many ranches breeding the toros bravos for the remaining bull rings of Spain, but the nation is never going to lose its love for ham. The Christian reclamation of Iberia from the Moors in the Middle Ages was fuelled by this meat, and in the 15th and 16th centuries the conquistadores carried it over the Atlantic to inspire the carving out of a gilded empire.
Aracena Offers an Off-The-Beaten-Path Foodie Experience
These days jamon iberico is a global gourmet product prized way beyond the tapas bars of Madrid. A visit to the Sierra de Aracena is a foodies’ pilgrimage, a chance to witness the free-range foraging of these adored swine at close quarters and see how their lifestyle and fodder create their unique flavor.
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By Spanish sierra standards, Aracena is a benign, low-lying range of wooded hills, with no peaks much above 2500 feet. The land here is almost totally devoted to the needs of these sleek black pigs, although there is increasing recognition of tourism.
It’s a region best explored on foot, with rail links available on a slow train north from Huelva to the village of Repilado in the western sierra. Trails and rural lanes pass through groves of cork-oak, populated by countless herds of the valuable pigs, steadily building up the layers of that prized flesh on their diet of acorns and chestnuts.
Theirs is a contented summer of free-range foraging, the only cloud on the horizon their inevitable October fate of being converted into the mighty hams, pork shoulders, loins, sausages, and black puddings that sustain the local economy.
The two main settlements in the sierra are Jabugo, a town that gives its name to the finest hams Spain offers to the world, and Aracena itself, the cultural hub of the industry. Here you will find the ham museum and its very serious Centro De Interpretacion del Cerdo Iberico, tracing the ancient lineage of Spanish swine – and ignoring that awkward period of Muslim rule under the Moors.
Ancient Fortresses, Cave Complexes, Cork Harvesting, Cuisine & Fine Wine
Aracena locals are proud of their gourmet ham stores, delis, and butchers, but pork isn’t the only show in town. Visitors can wander around the ruins of the old Moorish fortress and Templar church, or join a tour of the extensive cave complex known as the Gruta De Las Maravillas.
This memorable underground labyrinth offers spectacular clusters of stalactites and stalagmites, alongside natural auditoria formed by the rock, culminating in the Sala de los Culos, a collection of formations shaped like chubby mineral buttocks that delight the tour guides and usually raise an appreciative titter from the visitors.
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Back in the open air, the sierra invites exploration, although occasionally trails can be overgrown, or diverted by farmers who want to preserve the privacy of their livestock. Sometimes, in the interests of self-preservation, it is necessary to skirt around a field where bulls are being reared for the ring.
Unsurprisingly, some of the real treats of the sierra can be found in restaurants. Naturally, the pork and related produce dominate the regional cuisine, but there are other seasonal delicacies to enjoy. After the first rains of late summer, there is a profusion of wild mushrooms, tanas, which are served simply grilled, with a light dressing of olive oil. Earlier in the season, wild asparagus is a noted speciality of the region.
Aracena is a quiet gem of southern Spain. Its mountain air heady with the scent of drying ham, its wooded hills alive with the happy squeaks and snuffles of the livestock. Gourmets can spend a blissful week on the trails and in the taverns here, before loading their luggage with ham, chorizo, morcilla, all the treasures gleaned from this sublime sierra with its unchanging ancient landscapes.
If this sounds like your ideal adventure in Europe, don’t hesitate to reach out to the Winetraveler team to help you plan your perfect trip to Spain.
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