The dehesa is a beautiful harmony: holm oak and cork trees, grasses from the pastures, aromatic plants and acorns. It is also an especially important reserve for aromatic plants such as thyme or rosemary and a wide variety of mushrooms. This exceptional habitat that provides a natural and balanced diet to the Ibérico pig, key to achieving the sensory quality of Jamón Ibérico.
The original Mediterranean forest, known as the encina, once stretched over vast portions of Spain. However, thanks to the Roman occupation, subsequent populations, wars and hunger, the encina has long since disappeared.
It was used for timber, animal pastureland, firewood and the production of charcoal. Reforestation was a prime project of the government after the devastating Civil War of 1936-1939.
A few patches survive of something resembling this vast primeval forest; even though on a small scale firewood is still gathered, bark from cork trees is still harvested, charcoal produced, bee hives are kept and it has become an area for recreational hunting.
Rather than clearing huge forests of holm oak, the Spaniards selectively thinned the trees in order to create the tree-studded meadow known as the dehesa.
This dehesa system plays an essential role for birds from Northern and Central Europe that winter in Southwestern Spain. In addition, the dehesa is vital to the survival of many native Spanish birds, such as the nearly extinct Spanish imperial eagle.
The holm oak, together with cork tree and the pastures form a unique bio-diverse ecosystem, which covers almost five million acres of western Spain and Portugal. Large extensions of holm oak, cork and gall oak forest in the southwest of the Iberian peninsula make up the dehesa. Each tree takes between 30 and 40 years to grow to maturity.
Inadvertently you may have first seen the dehesa when as a child your parents read you “Ferdinand the Bull.” Laid-back Ferdinand loved lounging under cork trees! But a word of caution: should you encounter a bull in the dehesa today, he probably will not be as mellow.
The dehesa constitutes an extraordinary ecosystem of which the pig is an essential component. It is their favorite terrain, as well as home to Retinta cows and Merino sheep.
The combination of holm oak with evergreen cork trees is fortuitous. The cork tree produces acorns after the holm oak thereby extending the seasonal feast for the animals. A hybrid (known as a mesto) has been bred that bears acorns between peaks of the other two oaks, thereby giving a constant supply to the Cerdo Ibérico.
Due to the commitment of the Ibérico ham industry, this special ecosystem, which has always been the favorite home of the Ibérico pig, continues to thrive. Acorns, fruit of both the holm oak and cork tree, are the basis of the Ibérico pig's diet, although it also feeds on the pastures, stubble and wild legumes, making a decisive contribution to the ecological balance of its natural habitat.
Fortunately, due to the increased interest in Jamón Ibérico, the commercial value of the dehesa has risen dramatically thereby sparing it from the encroaching bulldozers of land developers.