Shady cork and holm oak trees line the way along the rough track that leads to Dehesa Maladúa, not far from the famous town of Jabugo and right in the heart of the Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche natural park. It is here in this unique landscape that the most expensive ham in the world is produced.
Maladúa is just as unflashy as the person who owns it, Eduardo Donato. Eduardo is a quiet, rustic, burly man with a quiet voice and a modest demeanour, a man who laughs a lot, who values simplicity and who I know does not eat meat. His Maladúa is a world away from other luxurious, opulent Andalusian estates. You would never guess that it was home to a product that attracts visits from TV broadcasters, newspapers and magazines from all over the world and that has even made it into the Guinness Book of Records.
Eduardo Donato came to Andalusia 31 years ago from the Catalan city of Tarragona. I wanted to know what drew someone from Catalonia to Andalusia to devote themselves to something as archetypically Spanish as Iberian ham: “I spent over a year travelling down the entire Mediterranean coast and also explored the inland,” he recounts, “until I found this place that radiated a unique sense of calm, permanence and, yes, I can only say an absolute absence of human intervention – my paradise, in other words.”
OPEN: And how does a vegetarian come to breed pigs? EDUARDO DONATO: When we first came here, it was a question of getting away from the big cities and living in the countryside. Far away from everything, I wanted to grow what we needed in order to live, I never thought about selling my produce, our lives were to be open to any possibilities, without a specific plan. By chance, I then discovered a breed of pig that was nearly extinct, the Manchado de Jabugo, of which there were only a few left. They’re smaller, lack the familiar black hooves and have a very distinctive spotted skin.
And now you’re looking after a herd of them. Yes, but never more than a hundred animals. This breed is slimmer and more agile and puts on weight more slowly and to a lesser extent. In fact, it takes twice as long to do so. People said that you couldn’t make money with this breed, that it grew too slowly and weighed less, also I understood that this breed was on the verge of disappearing because it wasn’t a profitable venture. I didn’t want that to happen. Many dehesas are being destroyed because breeders are replacing the traditional grazing animals with large numbers of more productive breeds…
… What do you mean by “productive”? Actively breeding animals in a way that makes them grow faster, the extra feed they need is imported, meaning that they don’t just eat acorns.
Like your pigs? Yes. You can spot a dehesa that has a lot of grazing animals by looking at how the vegetation has been eaten off the bushes. Here, everything grows all over the place, this land cannot be harmed or damaged by only a hundred animals, because they don’t need to look for their food, don’t need to eat any bushes because these trees produce enough fruit for hundreds of animals. My animals are happy, they live freely, can roam where they like, their food has nothing added to it or harmful in it, and we spend many hours of each day with them.
Sounds idyllic … Mock if you must … but, back to your question, why do I breed pigs?
Tell me! You should know the answer yourself. After all, you don’t eat meat either?
I want to hear it from you … I gave up meat years ago, because I find processed meat disgusting and think that the current practice of industrial livestock farming is inhumane and destructive. In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari calls it a mistake that threatens our very existence. Do you happen to know how much a pig farmer running a factory with thousands of pigs earns on each animal?
Not much, thirty or forty euros? They’d give their eye for that – in actual fact, they are left with about nine euros.
As little as that … So what do they do to increase their profits? They need to accelerate their growth in order to get two or more harvests, as they call them, every year.
Harvests? Yes, harvests. A bit cynical, isn’t it? Better rules apply at the dehesas, and the animals will have put on enough weight after eighteen months. By contrast, my animals live sustainably, enjoying between three and five years in a privileged setting in an area that UNESCO has declared a Biosphere Reserve, I give them love, massages and baths, they listen to classical music, live with their young, in fact, they live better than many human beings on this Earth, I can guarantee you that. After that, the ham, our trademark product, needs up to six years in the bodega depending on its size. We are making genuine slow food. For us, the focus is on the animals, their diet, their happiness and their life and not on how much money we might make from them. That’s something I can justify, meaning that, as a vegetarian, I can live with that and eat this ham as well. And you like it too, don’t you?
That notwithstanding, how is it that, after not all that much time, a Catalan is making the world’s best and most expensive ham here in the heart of Andalusia, a ham that is also scooping all the eco-awards across the globe? At the start, people laughed at us, and we weren’t any kind of threat to the traditional dehesas. After all, our production is very limited, we never manage more than 200 hams a year, but exclusivity and quality have their price.
What does one of your hams cost? 4,100 euros.
As we both know, this price has also secured you a place in the Guinness Book of Records. But what do the people here in the heartland of Spain think of being outdone by a man from Catalonia? You know, we’re all colleagues and we’re all trying to do the same thing.
Which is? For me, it’s sustainability, it’s about having respect for life and, most importantly, about raising awareness so that people understand that we won’t have a future if we carry on living like we are and, above all, treating other creatures inhumanely with our farming methods. We won’t, the animals won’t, the land won’t, our whole planet won’t.
The Moors were the masters here in Spain for over 700 years, and there were pigs living here back then. People say that the Arabs introduced their culture to Spain. They undoubtedly knew how to enjoy their food – do you think they also ate ham? I don’t think so! The Christians domesticated pigs, but it’s not an animal that you can milk or put to work. I mean, people must have valued them very highly to keep them going, because they were only there for food. First it was Judaism that forbade them, then Islam, and they had no place in Al-Andalus society, so why breed them? They left that to the Christians, who let the animals roam free, just like we do today.
What are your plans? (He looks at me in incomprehension.) What do you mean? Plans? How am I supposed to know? I don’t have any plans. My plan is to carry on and get others to catch the bug.