As the plane doors open, the warmth greets you like a long-lost friend, wrapping its arms around for a tight embrace. I have just arrived in Seville, which is in the middle of a Spring heatwave, and I am ready to embark on a two-day culinary adventure to Southern Spain.
Here, I will learn more about the iconic Spanish cuisine, and specifically, visit the two powerhouses in culinary excellence; Cinco Jotas which produces the finest acorn‐fed 100% Iberian ham in the world, and Riofrío which is the world’s first producer of organic caviar. Together, these companies represent luxury products at their finest. Accompanying us on the decadent trip is the legendary chef, José Pizarro, and communications director of Cinco Jotas and Riofrío Caviar, Maria Castro.
Seville, the capital of Andalusia in southern Spain, is a city that has captivated visitors for centuries with its rich history, elegant architecture, flamenco, vibrant culture, and of course, world-famous cuisine. In addition to its dishes, Southern Spain is also known for its wine, including the famous sherry wine which pairs well with the region’s cuisine. As you walk along the cobbled streets, it’s impossible not to marvel at the rainbow of colours, from warm golden hues of terracotta to whitewashed buildings that sit next to tree-lined pavements. The Jaracandas trees, with their lush canopies providing shade from the searing heat, are filled with lavender blue, scattering a sea of fallen petals over the ground. These trees blend with emblematic Seville Orange trees, of which there are around 14,000 in Seville, delicately filling the air with their sweet intoxicating scent of vibrant citrine orbs offset against deep shades of emerald greens.
Ibérico Pigs at The Dehesa Meadow
After a restorative night’s rest, it is an early start to head to the countryside and visit The Dehesa meadow. This is a real thrill as we prepare to see the natural habitat of the pampered Ibérico Pigs native to southwestern Spain.
As we drive along the picturesque landscape, the winding roads lead us to a verdant thicket of trees, their boughs stretching skyward in a graceful dance. Then, as we enter the vast expanse of rich green grassland, the earth stretches out before us in a wondrous display of mother nature’s beauty. I took many photos for personal memories on my trusty Leica camera, but none were able to completely capture the hypnotic splendour of the scene. Almost instantly we come across a small herd of pigs diligently hoovering up as many acorns as their appetites allow.
The pigs are roaming freely beneath leafy acorn trees and between scattered rock roses and orchids. The mosaic of open grasslands, luscious trees, shrubs, and bushes all help to provide shade for the animals, away from the strong temperatures.
The oak forest meadow is largely made up of Holm oak, Gall oak, and Cork oak trees. Together these trees form the rich ecological home for the iconic, black-hoofed pigs to graze on the highly prized acorns that fall from the trees. I discover that during the Montanera season, Cinco Jotas requires at least 20,000 square meters to be provided for each pig. During a hotter-than-average season like now, this can go up to 30,000 square meters per pig to ensure enough acorns are provided.
The pigs will walk up to 14 kilometres per day in search of the sweetest and largest acorns and will consume around 12 kilograms of acorns each. The daily dose of exercise helps to produce the lean, dark red colour in the meat which is rich in iron. Their acorn diet is what provides the distinctive nutty, savoury flavour to the ham which not only tastes ambrosian but is also scientifically proven to be good for our health. A clinical study, published in the North American Wiley Food Science & Nutritional Journal, was conducted on Cinco Jotas Ibérico ham with randomly selected individuals and it showed beneficial effects on cardiovascular health.
The Iberian ham is rich in iron and provides plenty of B vitamins, vitamin E, and folic acid which aids in reducing uric acid. No wonder the benefits of eating a Mediterranean diet have long been praised.
Private visit of the Cinco Jotas Cellar and tasting
After the visit to the Dehesa Meadow, we break for a quick coffee, then it’s back on the road to head towards the Cinco Jotas cellars to learn more about the process and to understand how the century-old tradition all began, followed by a private tasting.
Before the tour begins, we are kitted out in the appropriate protective attire. I learn how Cinco Jotas began in 1879, and that for over 143 years they have remained faithful to their initial objective which is to achieve a perfect Acorn Fed 100% Ibérico Ham. This has resulted in Cinco Jotas being known as the leading Ibérico Ham brand within Spanish gastronomy. It is easy to see why, as I witness the meticulous process of its production. Each ham goes through a five-year maturation process where it develops its unique flavour and texture, which has remained unchanged since its humble beginnings.
I am guided through each of the cellars, with what feels like thousands of jamon legs hanging above our heads, as the aroma of the acorn-fed Iberian ham fills my senses. Each ham is labelled with an owner and the quantity ordered. Amongst them, we spot Jose Pizarro’s order!
Jose’s loyalty to the brand is evident as he purchases more than 500 hams annually, making him the main UK buyer of Cinco Jotas. In addition to Pizarro, Harrods and several other highly regarded Spanish restaurants in London are among the brand’s buyers in the UK.
The process begins with ‘Profiling’, where the ham is prepared before it is ready to be salted. This involves removing fat but keeping just enough. The legs of the pigs are carefully trimmed and prepared for the curing process. Each leg is weighed and tagged, and the curing process begins. About 1cm of fat is left around the leg, so as not to dry up the ham. The rest is removed.
Then the next step by hand is ‘Salting’ with Atlantic Sea salt by calculating the weight of the ham with the right amount of salt. The salt draws out excess moisture, preserving the meat and infusing it with flavour. Afterwards, the hams are moved and hung for ‘Drying’ in a temperature-controlled curing room where they will remain for up to five years. As the hams age, the fat content begins to break down, creating a unique, complex flavour profile. The temperature and humidity of the curing room are carefully monitored to ensure the perfect environment for the hams to mature.
After years of curing, the hams are hand-carved by skilled artisans, who use a special knife to remove the thin slices of meat. Each slice is a work of art, with a marbled texture and a rich, acorn nut flavour that is unmatched. Achieving exceptional quality in the final stages of the process requires careful and distinctive monitoring of each ham on a daily basis. Usually, this role is fulfilled by the master sniffer (calador), who conducts the last quality check before the Cinco Jotas ham is presented to the customer.
Once we have explored the Cinco Jotas cellars, we all head back to a beautifully presented dining room where the famous hams are presented on a large dining table before us. Delicately sliced and presented on individual plates, along with a majestically and proudly presented leg of ham on a ham stand at the far end of the table, I sample black label quality Ibérico ham, Ibérico shoulder ham, Ibérico loin and Ibérico shoulder cut. The highest standard of a black label classification includes only 100% Ibérico pigs that have taken full advantage of the ‘Montanera’ season and have eaten acorns for the final 60 days of their lives.
What does it taste like?
The ham is tender, and quite literally, melts in the mouth. The ham has a faint marbled pattern, with almost translucent fat that provides extra juiciness. I get a wonderful taste of savoury, slightly sweet, and the signature nutty flavour. The hams are iconic and well deserving of the unashamed title “The finest jamon in the world”.
The Ibérico ham is paired with the most decadent sherries I will probably ever taste. A trio of wines, from La Honda founded in 1852, one of the oldest wineries in El Puerto de Santa María, are served alongside the Ibérico ham. The wines range between 20 and 40 years with distinct notes of toasted caramel, candied orange peels and roasted nuts. I am not easily moved from all the offerings on the dining table.
For the last day of our culinary adventure and after dining decadently on the caviar of cured hams, Cinco Jotas, it was time to sample its fish counterpart, Riofrío caviar.
Riofrío is the oldest and largest sturgeon farm in Europe, located between Granada and Malaga, and the world’s first organic caviar. The sturgeons which include Ossetra and Beluga, are farmed in the best mountain waters in Spain and probably the world, at a constant temperature between 14 and 15ºC, which mimics their wild habitat in a natural way. I learn that more than 70% of the caviar consumed nowadays originates from fish farms in China, as the sale of wild caviar is forbidden.
In the 1990s, a decree by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared the sturgeon as an endangered species and, therefore, it was prohibited to catch. Today, all caviar comes from non-wild fish, meaning its quality and excellence depend solely on the place where it is farmed. Due to the quality of its water, its natural temperatures, and hours of sun in the area to the west of Granada, Riofrío Caviar is of a quality that is unique in the world.
Swimming with the sturgeons
Riofrío suggests the experience is not just about sampling the caviar but also immersing oneself, and offering what feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to swim with the sturgeon in their pristine waters. We are fitted into our wet suits, and then carefully escorted safely into the waters with the sturgeon as they brush past inquisitively. I am assured they are friendly as I stand quite rigid in the water feeling momentarily uneasy, but thankfully have nothing to worry about as they glide past me in the cool waters.
What does it taste like?
Afterwards, we sit down to a private tasting of three varieties of Riofrío caviar. First, we try the classic and first certified organic caviar in the world. It is buttery with no preservatives to modify its flavour. The caviar is presented in a glass jar and is the caviar of choice for those who really know caviar. The eggs are perfectly sized and have a beautiful, glossy appearance. They burst in the mouth, releasing an immediate release of flavour that is both subtle and intense, that lingers long on the palate.
Then we try the traditional Ossetra caviar which has a nicely balanced flavour with just the right amount of saltiness. Finally, we taste the traditional caviar, a mature caviar with an intense flavour and hints of nuts and cream. The recipe used in its production is based on Iranian traditions. All three caviars are delicious and pair well with the Piper champagne and Viña Monty Reserva 2017 that’s served. The result is a caviar that is not only delectable but environmentally conscious, making it a guilt-free indulgence.
Where we stayed: A home from home
For my whirlwind visit, I stayed at Vincci La Rabida Hotel, which is an elegant and historic property located in the heart of Seville. The hotel is housed in a beautifully restored 18th-century mansion that combines traditional Andalusian architecture with modern amenities. The interior is tastefully decorated with antique furniture, marble columns and floors, along with colourful tiles that evoke the city’s rich cultural heritage. I immediately feel at home.
The bedrooms are spacious and tastefully decorated with a blend of contemporary and traditional styles. Overall, Vincci La Rabida Hotel, with its prime location, is a fantastic choice for travellers looking for a luxurious and authentic Seville experience.
Where We Dined
During the short stay, our hotel, Vincci La Rabida Hotel in Seville served a delicious breakfast buffet with hot and cold options, including pastries, cereal, yoghurt, Spanish omelettes, and bacon. Freshly squeezed juice and coffee were also available to enjoy in the hotel’s historic setting.
Eslava restaurant in Seville was a cosy and intimate spot offering traditional Spanish cuisine with a modern twist. The menu featured fresh, local ingredients, with standout dishes like Cinco Jotas Iberian ham, crispy pork croquettes, and bequer cigarettes with squid ink, cuttlefish, and seaweed. The communal dining experience and sharing tapas is a must-visit for foodies.
At Cinco Jotas restaurant, we indulged in melt-in-your-mouth Ibérico steaks served with green peppers and French fries that tasted like they been had sourced from a British seaside fish shop lending a nostalgic feeling. The food was rich and flavourful and felt like a private flamenco dance in my mouth.
Our final lunch in Malaga was at Chiringuito Tropicana on the seafront, where we enjoyed plump, freshly caught shrimps, glistening sardines cooked simply in garlic, lemon and oil, and more melt-in-your-mouth Iberico ham washed down with extra cold Cruzcampo larger.
To build up an appetite, I recommend a visit to the Cathedral of Seville, and the Alcázar of Seville, which are UNESCO World Heritage sites. The Alcázar is a royal palace built by the Moors. A private tour guide showed us around the palace as we breathed in the sheer scale and beauty. Its intricate architecture and stunning gardens are a testament to the rich history of the city. It is the oldest European palace that is still in use today. The Royal Alcazar and the pristine gardens have been used often in movies and television for a reason. Used by the King of Spain when he and his family visit Seville, the breath-taking foliage and palace walls create a truly royal experience as peacocks wander the outer gardens.
In a nutshell
On the last day of the trip, Jose Pizarro celebrated 12 years of the opening of his first critically acclaimed restaurant in Bermondsey, and his restaurants have since grown to seven locations with more in the pipeline. This was a special moment to share on the trip. It was also a wonderful opportunity to have Pizarro’s incredible knowledge to hand, and his infectious passion for cuisine.
The trip may have been short, but the experience will remain with me for years to come, as I am left with a long-lasting admiration and respect for Spanish cuisine and the dedicated people who bring it to life.
To discover more, visit: cincojotas.co and caviarderiofrio.com
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All imagery courtesy of the brands featured.