Ham central

My last post was written on the plane on the way to Spain, two weeks ago. The weather in the Andalucian hills is changeable at this time of year and the rain did not stay mainly on the plain. Still, there was enough sunshine to help put Scotland, and disappointment over the referendum, at a little distance. Warmth in the bones is a great thing for improving one’s sense of wellbeing. Plenty of good Spanish wine helps, too.

This was the ninth consecutive Dark Angels pilgrimage to the little town of Aracena, a clutter of red roofs and whitewashed stonework nestling in a fold of the Sierra de Aracena, 50 miles north of Seville. We go there every September to run our advanced creative writing in business course. Four days’ total immersion in a foreign landscape, culture and language is always a blast for the senses as well as for the mind. We make maximum use of that in the exercises and discussions we run, and even after nine years, it’s still as much of a blast for the three of us tutors as it is for the students.

On the Saturday morning we each take a small group into the community and meet local people to find out about their activities and experience a slice of life in Aracena. These trips form the basis for collaborative creative projects which the students present, along with pieces of personal writing, on the last evening of the course.

This year, while one group went to visit local sculptor, Alberto Germán, in his studio and another explored the vast cave complex, Las Grutas Maravillosas, that lies beneath the town’s castle, I took my group on the ham tour. Aracena is ham central, the home of Jamón Ibérico, one of Spain’s great gastronomic delights. Charcuteries abound in the town and black Iberian pigs are everywhere in the airy oak woods that cloak the surrounding hills.

In the centre of town is an affectionate sculpture (by Alberto Germán) of a small parcel of pigs swirling around the legs of the consejil, the community swineherd, who used to take the townsfolk’s pigs out into the dehesa, the acorn-rich pasturelands, every morning and bring them back in the evening, whereupon he would sound his horn to let their owners know that they had returned safe and sound and were ready for collection. If their owners were late, the pigs would often make their own way home.

Leaving the sculpture, we visited the nearby Museo del Jamón where the shop manager doubles as cortador. When not serving customers she spends her time sharpening her long-bladed carving knife in readiness for the translucent wafers she will slice from a clamp-held haunch. Finally we were treated to a tasting by the director of the Denominación de Origen for the region, a charming, quietly spoken man who led us on a tour of the many gustatory, olfactory and tactile markers that define a premium ‘five-acorn’ ham (whose fatty part, for example, is so fine that it should melt away on contact with the fingers).

On the last evening of the course it’s traditional that we three tutors round off the proceedings by reading something we have written in response to being in Aracena. This year it struck me more than ever that I gain just as much from the whole experience as the students do; that however tired I might feel when I arrive in Spain, I’m always quickened by the course, and it’s as much to do with what I personally take from it as it is to do with any progress we may help the students to make.

I come to this place to teach, perhaps
But mostly I come to learn
I come to look at things afresh:
How a ham is like a fiddle
And the hiss and swish of steel on steel
Gives an edge to the
cortador’s knife
And the long smooth bowing of the blade
Makes music for the mouth
And the scrape and scratch across the page
Brings our deepest thoughts to life

I come to learn how the consejil
Rests his thumb in the vee of his staff
As he pauses to catch his breath and dreams
That another sounds the horn
And one of his own comes nudging
With its small black snout at his door
And a fig plucked early, cool with dew
Tastes a little bit like heaven
And the swallows give us airspace
As we chant ourselves into the day
And the back of a hand can move me
In an unexpected way

I come to learn how a sculptor
Shapes foreign-tasting words
To bring a simple beauty
To the telling of his tale
And how giving voice to the words we write
Unlocks our deepest feelings
And we find warmth in sharing wine
And sharing stories makes us kind

I come to this place to teach, perhaps
But mostly I come to learn
To look in wonder at such as these
Fresh traces on the map of my heart

About Jamie Jauncey

Author, writer, blogger, facilitator, musician, co-founder of Dark Angels and The Stories We Tell
This entry was posted in Business writing, Dark Angels, Landscape, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Ham central

  1. Jamie

    Just re-read my Aracena chapter in my book and found this little memory. Working with my partner on one of those lovely exercises in the “finca’s ” courtyard where we had to create a metaphor to describe our perception of each others’ character, remembering that we were complete strangers 48 hours previously. I settled on describing her as ” a siesta snooze, languorously, stretching out in the shade of a eucalyptus tree. She seems content with that and responds with a portrayal of me as a quilted pullover keeping someone warm on a cold winter’s night.”
    I liked that…..

  2. No it doesn’t and can certainly pour. But at present very sunny and warm again in the rather less well known Sierra Aracena. Worth a visit!

  3. This seems to sum up a lot about the variety of experiences in a little ole spanish town in the hills! Sounds fun but I am not writing much at the moment as digging and picking up chestnuts!

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