The period from late fall through early spring is called the montanera, or acorn season, when pigs feed on the acorns of these trees, each eating about 22 to 26 pounds of acorns a day. The Iberian pig, which descends from the wild boar of southern Europe, is not a handsome specimen. It has drooping ears, a long snout, thin legs and dark hair. But its meat has a dense striping of fat and intense flavor, which produces the most sought-after cured hams in Spain.
In Jabugo, a town with modest charm, there was no mistaking the main trade. A warm, sweet smoke filled the air. Sánchez Romero Carvajal, one of the largest cured pork producers in the area, sat on the edge of town in a large building built in 1901. It was oddly civilized for a factory, with a central courtyard for employee breaks and long tiled hallways.
The air is dense and moist, and all you hear is the crackle of the wood. The men move the barrels and rearrange the sausages as the curing progresses. It takes a few weeks to cure chorizo and sometimes up to four months, depending on the size and the time of year. During that time, the meat dries and absorbs the smoke - smoke from the very wood whose fruit flavors the meat.
Not all chorizo is made in exactly the same way. Each region has its own tics. In fact, some producers, like Palacios, do not actually smoke their sausages. But even air-cured chorizo like these have a mysteriously smoky quality.
Jesús García, the export manager for Sánchez Romero, said: “With chorizo, we are talking about a type of sausage. For us chorizo means pork, fat and paprika.” And sometimes, oregano, nutmeg and hot paprika, too.
“Of course,” he added, “paprika was not known until the New World was discovered, but there were other sausages. You can still find today in Spain chorizo without paprika. It’s called white chorizo.”
Like all foods with terroir, chorizo tastes a little bit of the air and the earth, the very character of the region. All of this makes for a flavor distinguishable from almost any other chorizo.
The pigs are brought into Sánchez Romero when they are 14 to 16 months old. Once slaughtered, the legs are cured in a two- to three-year process for jamón Ibérico. The loins are made into caña de lomo, and the meat from the shoulder is used to make chorizo. It is an incredibly simple process. The meat is ground, then mixed with paprika, garlic, salt and a dash of sherry in a machine that thunders and churns. The spiced meat marinates overnight before being stuffed into casings and tied.
The next part is controlled largely by nature. The workers at the factory simply respond. The sausages are hung close together on the ceiling of a large, dim room. The roof is made of tiles, spaced so that you can see tiny bits of light through the cracks. There are screens on the windows but no glass. When it is hot and dry, the windows are closed, and burlap mats are soaked in water and laid on the floor of the curing rooms. When it is cold, the shutters are closed. At all times, a gentle, smoldering oak fire sits in a low barrel on the floor.