When hamming it up in Spain is serious business – My jamón ibérico

Asking for food recommendations for a trip to Spain, I knew would open up a can of worms. Everyone has an opinion that seems to counter the prevailing idea of the previous ‘expert” on topics such as favorite tapas joints or paella experiences.  However, I was surprised to see one universal thread through everyone’s recommendation – the ham.  “You have got to try the ham, and not just any ham, but the Iberian ham, the Jamón ibérico – the mother of all hams, and a lot of lip smacking was involved.  I’ve been lucky enough to sample this tidbits from heaven here in the States but I am eager to try it on its home turf, or at least as close as I can get.

a ham carver in action

So for any ham lovers, that have not sampled this delight yet, let me offer up some information:

Jamón ibérico or Iberian ham is also known as pata negra, and it is a cured ham produced mostly in Spain. According to Spain’s Denominación de Origen rules on food products, the jamón ibérico must only be made from black Iberian pigs or cross-bred pigs as long as they are at least 75% ibérico.  Its arrival in the US market has been recent, 2007, before that it was contraband, where only the brave and/or foolish smuggled it in.  Even today most of the hams produced remain in Spain for domestic consumption.

The black Iberian pig lives primarily in the south and southwest parts of Spain in the provinces of Salamanca, Ciudad Real, Cáceres, Badajoz, Seville, Córdoba and Huelva.

The Development

Immediately after weaning, the piglets are fattened on barley and corn for a few months. The pigs are then allowed to roam in pasture and oak groves to feed on grass, herbs, acorns, and roots.  In the bulking-up stage, the pigs feast on 15 to 20 pounds of acorns per day! All this eating results in weight gains of up to 2 pounds daily.  The foraging they enjoy is essential to the final quality of the hams, because it allows the beneficial fat to be marbled into the muscles. once the pigs have reached the desired weight they are “sacrificed” or matanza which was traditionally a family affair, in which the pig was slaughtered and the family gathered to preserve the meat for the rest of the year.

is this the ham for me?

The resulting hams are salted and dried for two weeks, after which they are rinsed and left to dry for another four to six weeks. The curing process then takes at about 12 months, although some serious producers cure their jamones ibéricos for up to 48 months, as might be suspected there is a direct correlation between drying time and price and generally the more desired Jamón Ibérico de Bellota are aged the longest.  During this period, the hams loose 20-40% of their weight as the fat drips off the hams.  The hams are hung in areas exposed to the mountain air and as the seasons change to summer, the hams sweat, but because of the high salt content bacteria does not take over.  The extended drying time lends complex flavors to the meat.

Levels of Nuttiness 

The hams are labeled according to the pigs’ diet, with an acorn diet being most desirable:

The finest is called jamón ibérico de bellota (acorn). This ham is from free-range pigs that roam oak forests (la dehesa) along the border between Spain and Portugal, and eat only acorns during this last period. It is also known as jamón ibérico de Montanera. The exercise and diet have a significant impact on the flavor of the meat; the ham is cured for up to 48 months.

The next grade is called jamón ibérico de recebo. This ham is from pigs that are pastured and fed a combination of acorns and grain.

The third type is called jamón ibérico de cebo, or simply, jamón ibérico, and comes from pigs fed only grain.

 Noble Rot

In Spain, is often sold just as it is when it comes from the storage cellar, and this means a fine layer of “noble rot” which is seen as a mark of quality.  The hams sold in the United States have this film washed from their exterior before they are imported.

The term pata negra refers to jamón ibérico in general, and may reference any one of the types listed above. The term refers to the color of the pigs’ nails, which are white in most traditional breeds, but black for the Black Iberian breed. While as a general rule, a black nail should indicate an Ibérico ham, clever conspires have been known to paint the nails.

Bellota jamones are prized both for their smooth texture and rich, savory taste. A good ibérico ham has plenty of marbling, and because of the pig’s diet of acorns, a lot of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid shown to be healthy (in moderation). Additionally, little white spots can occur in the ham which are harmless and due to the amino acid, tyrosine, from the pig’s diet high in acorns.  In fact, the spots confirm that the ham is indeed a genuine bellota ham.  Relative to the jamón serrano, the fat content is high giving it a rich taste.

So, what about that  jamón serrano?

There are basically two different types of cured hams in Spain, jamón serrano or “mountain ham,” and jamón ibérico or “Iberian ham.”  The second one, we’ve  talked about, so a bit about the first:

 Jamón Serrano – Nearly 2,000 producers of Serrano ham operate in Spain. The EU controls the name Jamón Serrano since 2000 and protects the processing of this product. The mountain or Serrano ham is made from several different breeds of white pigs, such as Duroc, Landrace or Large White, that are fed mostly cereals and cured from up to 16 months.

Ham is such a treasured food that besides the several Denominations of Origin, a chain of Museos de Jamón or “Ham Museums” exists around Spain.

How to Eat

The slices of this ham are paper thin, like proscuitto. It is delicious on its own.  However, when I sampled it at the Fancy Food Show last year, they drizzled just a dab of meyer’s lemon olive oil on top, and that elicited a few involuntary groans, but that’s all I am fessing up to.  Most often this ham is served as a simple tapas with a piece of bread.

This ham is like a good wine or cheese, it needs time to breath and reach room temperature before it is served so it can develop its full flavors.


So, while in Spain, I see some  jamón ibérico tasting in my future, and I would not rule out a jamón serrano trial as well, and ideally a sampling of all types to appreciate the differences.


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17 comments for “When hamming it up in Spain is serious business – My jamón ibérico

  1. January 29, 2012 at 7:47 PM

    This is the ham that I save up for all year long because it costs $100 per pound in my neck of the woods and is totally worth it for special holidays such as Christmas. I wonder why the Ibericos have to be washed prior to entering the states. I’d love to have a leg that still has noble rot. Iberian ham and an extravagant glass of red wine would be among my top special dinner wishes.
    Christine @ Fresh Local and Best recently posted..Beef and Bean Chili with Pickled Onions

  2. January 30, 2012 at 12:00 AM

    Mmmhhh, I wish the prices for jamón would be decent… A wonderful produce which I would love to try!



  3. January 30, 2012 at 4:15 AM

    I hope prices will decrease. :/
    Stephen Mayers recently posted..Imroz Restaurant

  4. January 30, 2012 at 9:18 AM

    Once a year – I buy a few tiny pieces from a specialty shop in Minneapolis. Like truffles, it’s worth an occasional indulgence.
    Claudia recently posted..Ricotta Dumplings in Srawberry Sauce

  5. January 30, 2012 at 5:04 PM

    Because I am learning Spanish, i am in my 4th year, I am truly interested in anything Spanish! I love
    Jamón Iberico a lot!
    I already knew this but thanks for this info! A lovely read!
    Sophie recently posted..Two Home-made cashew milks

  6. February 2, 2012 at 11:20 PM

    Jamon iberico is sold in Lebanon and is a great food. Need to make it to Spain some day, especially Andalusia!

  7. February 4, 2012 at 4:57 AM

    🙂 meyer lemon dressing on ham. involuntary groans. limited confessions. I get the picture. And actually walked myself through the fragrant, salty, meaty ham…..in my dreams. Enjoy Spanja!
    Kitchen Butterfly recently posted..The Anatomy of an Artichoke

  8. February 5, 2012 at 4:43 PM

    Well I do not eat ham, or meat at all…but I love the information and history here. Great read!
    Magic of Spice recently posted..Picture-Perfect Meals: Little Book of Appetizers

  9. February 10, 2012 at 12:40 PM

    On my first trip to Spain, I was blown away by the ham. I had no idea that it was such a passion of the Spanish. I also don’t eat it but did find other dishes that I absolutely fell in love with like garlic soup and poached egg.
    tammy recently posted..Conversation with an Artisan: Letty Flatt

  10. February 11, 2012 at 3:44 PM

    OMG with jamon Serrano and Iberico are spectacular!
    The only issue is that here, are imported, of course, and they are so expensive 😉

    Need to trip to Spain to eat it locally 🙂


    Gera@Sweets Foods Blog recently posted..Seven Mobile Restaurant Apps to Spot the Best Around You

  11. February 11, 2012 at 11:21 PM

    Just got a small plastic bag of serrano..85 gram/2 euros..not that two euros are a lot, but you can get at least 200grams of German ham for that price.
    Angie@Angie’s Recipes recently posted..Potato Bread Batons with Cheese and Pear

  12. February 12, 2012 at 1:07 PM

    it’s true when you have tasted it there is no other !!Pierre
    Pierre recently posted..Du caviar des champs sur des sablés parmesan

  13. Laz
    February 13, 2012 at 5:43 PM

    Fantastic read. I love Jamon Iberico. One of the worlds true delicacies.

  14. February 20, 2012 at 10:10 AM

    Great read. I had the opportunity to see the curing process during a visit in Spain. I went to one of the producers who showed me how it is done. Here’s the link to the blog post if you are interested: http://wp.me/p1eLmk-7S

    A true delicacy!
    thegastronome recently posted..Pastizzi Relegated

  15. February 26, 2012 at 3:53 PM

    Another in depth post, LouAnn. Thank you for that and thank you for the whiffs of ham. I am mesmerized by their virtual aroma, lol…
    Louise recently posted..A Cookbook Tribute to the Oscars

  16. February 29, 2012 at 7:32 PM

    It’s so great that there was a common theme in your travel advice. That makes it easy! Now, the hams of Italy and Germany (or pork knee), I know, but not the ham of Spain. I appreciate this intro into a new food and food origin!
    Lori recently posted..Mixed Vegetable and Peanut Spring Rolls

  17. OysterCulture
    March 10, 2012 at 8:17 AM

    Christine – totally with you there, having now sampled many of the hams, this is indeed a treat worth savoring.

    Rosa – I think you would love it, but the prices definitely keep this pork product as a treat than a regular intake and perhaps thats good?

    Stephen – Me too, but perhaps wishful thinking as well.

    Tammy – I am with you, the options and diversity were incredible. I was also surprised at just how pork focused the food was.

    Claudia – Good for you, where’s a good shop for it in MN?

    Sophie – I am learning Spanish too, but my problem is that every time I try to speak, my French takes over.

    Taste of Beirut – Spain has sucked me in, you will love it.

    KB – Let’s just keep those kind of responses between you and me, eh? =)

    MoS – Thanks for reading.

    Gera – You and me have to figure out a way to get back.

    Angie – I hope you enjoyed it. What a great example of the differences in price.

    Pierre – indeed!

    Laz – Me too, now I need to find a good place to get my fix.

    The Gastronome – Thanks for the link, I will definitely check it out.

    Louise – We’d be in trouble if it was not a virtual aroma =)

    Lori – We might have to do a comparison testing some day.

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