Is Jamón Ibérico or Iberian ham world’s best dry-cured ham? Anyway, Jamón ibérico is one of the most important food items of the Spanish cuisine (along with other dishes such as gazpacho and paella). It is also one of world’s most expensive foods.
The highly prized ham comes from the Iberico pig, which farmers breed in Southwestern Spain and Southwestern Portugal.
The pigs eat mostly acorns during the fourteen to thirty six months they live.
Guinness World Records has also recognised it as the world’s most expensive ham. The most expensive leg of ham commercially available is an Iberian Bellota ham that Taishi Co., Ltd. (Japan) as of 3 February 2020 sold at ¥1,429,000 ($13,183.1 or €11,881.3). Until recently this honour befell to Eduardo Donato.
The Portuguese call the ham presunto ibérico . The other famous variation of the Spanish Iberian ham is jamón serrano. The Italians call thier ham ‘prosciutto‘ and may disagree with the claim that jamon iberico is the best.
Pork products from Black Iberian breed pigs get the ‘ibérico’ denomination. According to the ‘denominación de origen’ regulations in Spain on ham, Jamón Ibérico must come from pure breed, or cross-bred Iberian pigs. As long as they are at least 50% Black Iberian.
Out of the total production of Iberian ham, only 6% comes with a black label, indicating it’s the 100% Iberian pure breed.
The ‘Ham Museums’ in Spain
Iberico is so Important for the Spanish there are many ‘Ham Museums’ in Spain. One of the reason is that it has a long history.
Black Iberian pigs descend from wild boars and have been a delicacy since long before our times. Since ancient times, inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula ate ham, even as early as Roman times. In the year 77, Roman writer Pliny the Elder praised their superior quality.
When the Moors invaded Spain, due to religious beliefs they prohibited pork. But after the Catholics took over again, pork became a popular food once again. In 1493, when he sailed across the Atlantic for the second time, Christopher Columbus had Iberian pigs aboard his caravels.
The Iberian pig comes directly from the wild boar. So they are pigs that have a lot more muscle mass and less fat. All that fat is inside the whole muscle, and it doesn’t sit on the outside of the meat.
Today, Spain is the largest producer and consumer of air-dried cured ham in the world. Ham is so prized in Spain today that not only is there several Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) hams (a status which regulates production methods, ingredients and locations within Spain) but there is also a chain of Museos de Jamón or “Ham Museums” around the country.
But, it is to the west you have to look for the finest jamón, to the vast tracts of land known as the Dehesa, an ecosystem of prairie-like grazing land with holm oak (encina) trees, which once covered almost 90% of the country but now only remains in the regions of Salamanca, Extremadura, Andalucia and across the border into Portugal.
The black Iberian pig lives primarily in the central and southwestern region of the Iberian Peninsula (Portugal and Spain). In Spain, the black Iberian pig typically has its habitat in the provinces of Huelva, Córdoba, Cáceres, Badajoz, Salamanca, Ciudad Real, and Seville.
In Portugal they can be found in the central and southern regions , especially in the Alentejo region. There the black Iberian pig is called the porco preto ibérico or porco alentejano. The black Iberian pig is an important element in the local Portuguese culture and tradition. Theree are also annual festivals in their honor. One of them is the Feira do Porco Preto, an annual festival in the region of Ourique.
Raising and ‘Sacrificing’ Iberian Pigs
Immediately after weaning, the piglets are fattened on barley and maize for several weeks. The pigs roam in pasture and oak groves to feed naturally on grass, herbs, acorns, chestnuts, and roots, until the slaughtering time approaches. The diet may be strictly limited to olives, chestnuts or acorns for the best quality jamón ibérico, or may be a mix of acorns and commercial feed for lesser qualities.
The pigs are ‘sacrificed’ when they are 15 months old. The hams and paletas are then buried in salt for 15 to 20 days, depending on weight.
They then salt the hams from the slaughtered pigs and leave them to dry for two weeks. They are rinsed and left to dry for another four to six weeks. The ham then cure at least twelve months. Some producers cure their jamones ibéricos for up to 48 months.
Preservation and Storage
Jamón comes from the pig’s rear leg. Most companies will use the front leg, called paleta. The rest of the meat for other products, like chorizo.
Cured meats are edible for a long time. People used the curing process to preserve pork before the invention of refrigeration. During the curing process the meat is dried in salt.
This helps to prevent the build up of harmful organisms. Then they hang it to be exposed to the elements, producing an exterior layer of mold which helps to protect the meat inside.
After salting, the process starts to gradually slow down. The legs spend about two months in a temperature-controlled room. Then they moved them to an airy room for six to nine months.
The final stage of curing, and also the longest, is the one in cellars. On average, an Iberian ham needs a couple of years to reach its peak flavor, but some legs can cure for much longer.
The time it takes depends on the weight. The hams can spend two, three, four years here.
Every region of Spain has its own ham. Every Spaniard has his or her own preferred ham. Spaniards take the noble pig seriously. They classify it by breed, diet, and region.
Protected Designation of Origin
Like many products, including Spanish wines, or the ‘appellation d’origine contrôlée’ used in France, some regions have established their own ‘denominación de origin’ (D.O), (designation of origin). The D.O. guarantees that farmers follow strict requirements if they want to call their hams ‘jamones Ibéricos’.
EU’s Protected Designation of Origin protects Spanish Iberian ham. Five Spanish provinces are split into four different Protected Designations of Origin, ‘denomenaciónes de origen’:
1. D.O.P. Guijuelo
Farmers raise the pigs of this denomination in the foothills of the sierras of Gredos and Béjar, within the autonomous communities of Castile and León and Extremadura, as well as in Andalusia and Castile-La Mancha.
The protected zone consists of 77 municipalities of the southeast of the province of Salamanca, being the capital of the Guijuelo itself. 60% of the production of Jamón ibérico belongs to the DO Jamón de Guijuelo.
2. D.O.P. Jabugo,
Province of Huelva– Jamón made in the Sierra de Aracena and Picos de Aroche Natural Park, in the towns of Cumbres Mayores, Cortegana, Jabugo, Encinasola, Galaroza, etc., that make up the zone of the Denominación de Origen Protegida de Jabugo.
The entire town of Jabugo focuses on the production of jamón ibérico. The town’s main square’s anme is La plaza del Jamón (‘Ham Square’).
3. D.O.P. Dehesa de Extremadura
The production area is located in the pastures of cork oaks and evergreen oaks in the province of Cáceres and the province of Badajoz. Of the total dehesa area of the peninsula, Extremadura has about one million hectares.
4. D.O.P. Los Pedroches, province of Córdoba
External shape elongated, stylized, profiled by the so-called cut in V. Keep the leg and the hoof for easy identification.
Commercial Grading and Labeling
There are 4 classifications which are identified with a colour coding system. Each colour tells you about the breed of the pig, the diet and production of the Jamon, and how the meat will taste/feel.
The hams get labels according to the pigs’ diet and the percentage of the pigs’ Iberian ancestry. With an acorn diet and pure-bred Iberians being most desirable.
The current labeling system, based on a series of color-coded labels, was phased in starting in January 2014
1. Black-label – jamón 100% ibérico de bellota
This is the finest grade and produced from pure-bred Iberian pigs; pata negra belongs to this grade. Bellota means acorn. This ham is from free-range pigs that live in holm oak forests and pastures (called ‘dehesas’) along the border between Spain and Portugal and eat only acorns during this last period.
The exercise and diet significantly influence the flavor of the meat. The ham is cured for 36 months. Only ‘bellota’ hams may have labels of acorns and dehesas on their labels.
2. Red-label – jamón ibérico de bellota
Also produced from free-range pigs but only difference is that they are not pure-bred. The percentage of Iberian ancestry in the animal must be specified on the label. Broken hoofss is a goof sign since they have been running around in the ‘dehesa’ more.
3. Green label – jamón ibérico cebo de campo
This ham is from pasture-fed pigs eating a combination of acorns and grain. This means that the ham is easier and more cost effective to produce. Buy the ones which are more sweaty and have patches. They are tastier.
4. White label – jamón ibérico de cebo,
Or simply, jamón ibérico. The ham is cured for 24 months. These animals are on a diet of grain, they are not free range and not 100% Black Iberian Pig breed. They cure this ham for the shortest time possible to produce the highest yield. A Jamón Iberico de Cebo is comparable to a good Serrano ham. The flavor is salty and porky like bacon.
The labels also apply to paleta (front legs) and caña de lomo: (loin) cuts from Iberian pigs.
The difference in age between hams determines the colour. The flesh of the younger hams have a lighter pink colour. The colour of older hams is a deep, ruby red. The taste too is very different.
When people in Spain celebrate something important they often choose pata negra pigs from southern Spain for their celebrations.
Pata negra in Spanish means black leg . It is a commercial label for jamón ibérico. In day-to-day Spanish, it is used as a synonym for the best ham.
It referred to the color of the pigs’ hoof, which are white or fair-colored in most traditional and commercial pork breeds in Spain, but always black in the Black Iberian breed.
The term used to be liberally applied in both Spanish and Portuguese, leading to quality and markets disputes, since the term was used interchangeably both as great quality jamón (of any breed) and ibérico jamón (of any quality).
Modern regulations only allow the use of the wording pata negra for black label jamón sourced from acorn-fed pure-bred Black Iberian pork.The locality of Jabugo is completely dedicated to the Jamón production.
Consumption and Popularity
Every decent restaurant in Spain serves ham. Spaniards are very proud of their Jamón Serrano and Jamón Ibérico.
Ibérico encompasses some of the most expensive ham produced in the world, and its fatty marbled texture has made it very popular as a delicacy, with a hard to fulfill global demand comparable to that of Kobe beef.
Taste and Recipes
Jamón Ibérico, specially the one labeled as de bellota, has a smooth texture and rich, savory taste. There is relatively more fat compared to jamón serrano. A good ibérico ham has regular areas of intramuscular fat known as ‘marbling’.
When the Iberian pig forages for its favourite food, acorns, the nutty flavour is absorbed into the fat. This breed of pig is unique because it stores fat in muscle tissue, producing the ham’s marbling and much sought-after sweet taste.
For example, in the Huelva mountains, with its unique temperatures and climatic conditions, the ham naturally sweats, the fat melts, and it takes on the aroma and the scents, the air of the mountains. Afterward, everything passes to the loin of the meat. The meat has a greasiness and certain scents and flavors that are completely different from those of other types of foods.
Here a video on how to carve a jamon (see also the chapter on carving in the Jamon Serrano post).
Is Jamón Ibérico organic and healthy?
The best Jamón Ibérico de Bellota is produced in the traditional way without nitrite cures. But to be organic the ham and processes used by a farm needs to be certified.
Many Spaniards think they do not have a need for such a term. It’s not “organic” food to them. It is just normal food and produced in the same traditional way as centuries ago when chemicals were not yet used.
Acorns are high in oleic acid, a fatty acid also found in olives, that is believed to be good for health, according to the US’ National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).
It is rich in protein, vitamins B1 and B6 and healthy minerals.
Taste and Recipes
The fallen acorns that carpet the dehesa give the meat its complex flavour and aroma for which jamón ibérico de bellota is famous.
The fat is white and soft; it has notes of toasted dried fruit and bread crust; and its overall flavor is a delicate balance of sweet and salty.
You can taste the ham in crusty rolls, ham in tapas snacks, ham with cheese. At the Mercados you can get it in paper-thin slices right from the line of hanging hams. Some like it better than prosciutto because it has less fat and salt and isn’t as soft.
It’s great with a bit of Manchego cheese and Spanish olives, but never, never served with mustard.
Watch Out for Fake Pata Negra-“style” Ham
Given the fact that top-quality Iberian ham such as Dehesa Maladúa is relatively scarce, and the fact that the costs of production are high, some doubtful producers outside Spain have begun producing pata negra-“style” ham from factory-fed animals that are artificially fattened.
Apparently, a sizable portion of both local market and exports are not actually ibérico. As explained above, Spain regulation defines trade labeling for all ibérico products.
Jamón has also been sold unlabeled in small towns and unpretentious establishments all around rural Spain. While as a general rule, a black hoof should indicate an Ibérico ham, the ancestry could be exceedingly cross-bred or untraceable, and also there were cases of ham sourced from rare breeds with dark hoofs, and even manually darkened hoofs.
Because jamón ibérico production and export is limited, buyers should beware and not fall victim of retail or wholesale bait-and-switch or fraud similar to that in olive oil export fraud.
What do they do with the rest of the pig?
The rest of the pig is not wasted and these other cured products from the rest of the pig (the ’embutidos’ are also well worth eating.
- Chorizo de cerdo ibérico – a cured sausage made from chopped pork, pork fat and paprika. There are hundreds of regional varieties, some containing garlic and herbs.
- Lomo de cerdo ibérico – the cured tenderloin of the pig.
- Morcon de cerdo ibérico – a larger, less well known sausage cured with herbs and spices.
- Salsichon de cerdo ibérico – another sausage, cured for at least four months.
I found the above and more interesting facts in this Guardian article on the black Spanish pig.