Been There, Smelled That explores the aromas of places around the world. Travel writer Maggie Downs investigates some of the world’s most potent smells, looks at how odor cultivates a connection to place, and presents how humans engage with smells, from scents that have endured generations to the latest innovations in aroma-making.

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I believe it’s impossible to experience Spain without encountering ham. But in my case, it was by accident.

I was staying at a boutique hotel in one of those postcard-perfect Andalusian villages. Before jumping into the shower, I noticed there wasn’t any soap. I called down to the front desk and did my best to communicate despite knowing limited Spanish. Twenty minutes later, I was surprised when a smiling employee knocked on my door and presented me with a platter of ham.

That was the day I learned the difference between jabón and jamón. Because I’m nonconfrontational, I accepted the platter with a nod, as if I had been expecting it, and I didn’t mumble anything like, “Whoops, I meant soap” or “Actually, I don’t eat meat.”

The slices were thin and fanned across the plate like a peacock tail. When I held one up, I could almost see the morning light through it, like a palm-sized pane of burgundy stained glass. The scent instantly filled the room with a thick, smoky aroma that enveloped me like a cocoon of ham. I could taste the air.

Of course, smell and taste are two intertwined senses; I think of them as the buddy cops of our sensory world, the loveable odd couple working together to unravel things. If you’ve ever had a stuffy nose from a bad cold or lost your sense of smell to COVID, you know how that makes everything taste bland—even while your taste buds are still doing their part, you’re not experiencing the full spectrum of flavor without scent. About 80 percent of what we perceive as taste actually comes from what we smell.

Few people understand that connection better than Manuel Vega Domínguez, a master ham sniffer for Cinco Jotas, a prestigious 145-year-old brand that produces the gold standard in jamón ibérico. (Like, when ham is served at the Governors Ball following the Oscars, it’s Cinco Jotas.)

Jamón ibérico is distinctly tethered to place, the way true champagne hails from the Champagne region of France. This type of ham is made only from the black pigs native to the Iberian Peninsula, a rustic breed of hogs that roam free in the meadows. These pigs gorge themselves on fallen acorns from the oak trees, which is what gives the ham its distinctive bright, sweet flavor and melty texture.

Each ham is naturally cured for about three years. But before it leaves the curing cellar, it must undergo a rigorous olfactory test by a professional sniffer, like Vega, called a calador, who wields a tool called a cala—a slender probe made of bone, which is used because it doesn’t absorb or leave any odors. This is inserted in four defined points on the ham. The calador inhales for about two seconds at each point then seals the opening with a fat plug. Hams that don’t pass muster are either returned to the cellar for additional curing or rejected entirely.

With each whiff, Vega is searching for a precise balance of earthy, sweet, nutty, and herbal scents. In essence, all the aromas of southern Spain condensed into a ham leg.

“It is very aromatic, clean, round, and fills the nose. It is difficult to describe—but it evokes the aroma of the natural cellar and the forest… nuts, wood, toast, umami, and touches of a certain sweetness,” Vega said. “When a ham has a different aroma, I can detect it quickly, because what I keep in my olfactory memory is the aroma of Cinco Jotas.”

Early in Vega’s career at Cinco Jotas, he spent a two-year stint as a master carver before he recognized his potential as a ham sniffer and began training to become a calador.

“In those two years, many hams passed through my hands,” he said. “It was during that time that I realized I had a good nose, so in 1998, I started to focus on my aroma skills.”

He also had to pass a test, during which he had to correctly smell and identify small amounts of liquids, like ammonia, vinegar, gin, and rubbing alcohol, that had been diluted in cups of water.

Sniffing has now been Vega’s primary role for nearly thirty years. On a typical day, he’ll smell around one hundred to two hundred pieces, while busy holiday seasons require sniffing around five hundred hams per day. So keeping his instrument finely tuned is his highest priority.

“Precision is a constant path that requires discipline and meticulousness in my daily routines. If there’s a day when I’m not feeling my best, I let my manager know, and she’ll assign me to other tasks,” he said. “But I take very good care of myself, with a daily diet that includes oranges and mint tea with honey.”

Presumably, it also includes ham.