This article first appeared on the Everyday Food Blog.
“Ham Fair:” two beautiful words brought together to create something even better.
Those of us lucky enough to live here know that one of Spain’s greatest treasures is ham. Jamón ibérico is as close to perfection as food can get; one part cured pork and one part divine intervention. So, to celebrate this iconic and praiseworthy foodstuff, we throw a party.
And not just any party!
It’s called the Feria del Jamón (the “Ham Fair”), an annual festival of Iberian pork products held every October. But the crown jewel, belle of the ball, and literal pig’s knees of this event is ham. Nothing else can match it for flavor or its prominence in Spain’s cuisine.
Given that I love Spanish ham more than most things in life, I put going to this festival at the top of my bucket list. So, as the leaves started to turn golden brown, I packed my cholesterol tablets and headed off to the ham fair.
La Feria del Jamón de Aracena
The town of Aracena lies in the hills an hour-and-a-half from Seville. Famous for its food, it’s part of the Jabugo appellation of Iberian ham-making, and is home to some of the world’s greatest cured meats. And, being the largest town in the area, it’s the obvious home for the ham fair!
Over the course of two weeks, thousands of people converge to eat tons of ham, kilos of chorizo, and rooms full of cheese.
The Stink of Meat and Sweat
No matter how much you love ham, nothing can prepare you for your first time at the ham fair. Because you will never love anything as much as these people love ham. As soon as I walked into the main hall of the fairgrounds, my jaw dropped.
I had never seen so much ham in my life!
There were hundreds of ham legs in that room on that day alone. Master slicers were lined up on one side, discarding finished, naked bones at an astonishing pace. Every table of fair-goers had a ham leg proudly mounted at one end like the bow of a ship. Across the room from the slicers, beer flowed non-stop from the bar, and a giant paella pan full of rice was being tended to by a man so focused he seemed to not notice the crowds around him.
The smell of meat, cheese, and sweat was overpowering, delicious, and primal.
When Slicing Ham Becomes an Art Form
“Could all contestants please make their way to the stage.”
This call from the loudspeaker filled me with curiosity. Whatever contest was happening at the ham fair, there was no way it could be anything less than fantastic.
Completely by coincidence, we’d come on the day of the main event. The concurso de cortadores is held on the first Saturday of the festival, where the greatest ham slicers of the region are pitted against one another in a contest of skill and technique.
For this year’s competition, five men took to the stage—a mountain of plates and knives was ominously stacked before each of them. Each represented a different region or town, but all came from Andalucía or Extremadura; the kingmakers of Spanish ham!
After introductions that would put pro-wrestlers to shame, each man was presented with his leg of ham. Weighing at least five kilograms, these hams are a mass of
raw cured material waiting for their sculptors to bring them to life.
Hearing the rules of the contest caused my jaw to hit the floor a second time.
The contestants were to be given two hours and fifteen minutes to slice their hams. For context, that’s longer than the current record for running a marathon!
The Loudest Cheer of All Time
Each cortador gets assessed on a variety of factors. Firstly, they needed to show the technique needed to slice strips of ham so thin that they melt in the mouth. Next, they received points on creativity and plating. You’d be amazed at how beautiful a plate of ham can be made to look!
The judges then set a task that to me sounded impossible.
From each contestant, they wanted three identical plates of ham, all weighing as close to 100 grams as possible.
So let’s get one thing straight:
Slicing ham is hard enough. But slicing ham that is perfectly thin, in strips that are almost identical, and weigh no more than 100 grams on the plate? In any other room, that request would be received with stares and laughter.
But not from these men. No, these masters of cured meat set to work with a speed and precision that Michelangelo and Usain Bolt would be jealous of. Within what seemed like no time at all, the contestant from Seville had his first plate at the weighing scales.
The announcer read the weight and hurriedly came to the microphone: “exactly 100 grams!”
Let me tell you: you have never heard a crowd cheer as loud as a crowd of Andalucíans cheer a man who is able to cut exactly 100 grams of ham.
From that moment, all that was left to do was grab a table, grab a ham leg, and start weighing out my own portions. Here’s a spoiler for you: I never even came close to 100 grams.
Plan your own visit
There are multiple buses between Seville and Aracena each day, but it’s easiest to get there by car.
You can also check out dates for the Ham Fair at the official website of the Feria del Jamón (in English).
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David discovered his inner Spaniard while studying in Seville, and it’s now his life’s mission to learn everything he can about his adopted country’s culture and cuisine. He can usually be found eating in a busy tapas bar or strolling in a quiet street. You can see more of his adventures on the Everyday Food Blog!