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.
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.
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.
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.
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.