Jamón is at the heart of Spanish culture and cuisine. Jamón Ibérico is Spain's pride, known for flavors, aroma, texture, and fat infiltrations. The ancestors of the unique animals that produce these hams can be traced back to prehistory when they ran wild in the Iberian Peninsula. Columbus had some of them on the Santa María when he set out to discover the New World.
Jamón Ibérico de Bellota (bellota literally means acorn-fed) pigs are free to roam the meadow of the 'dehesa', the ancient rangeland of western Spain. During the autumn they feast on acorns (bellotas) from the holm oak and cork trees, sometimes gaining as much as a kilo of weight a day. Some whole hams can sell for upwards of $2, 0000 per piece. They are cured 36 to 48 months, losing nearly half their weight as the fat melts away. After curing, the hams have an incredibly complex taste, distinct marbling, a deep red color, and an intense ham flavor bathed in mono-unsaturated fat.
Iberian ham is produced from Cerdo Ibérico, a pig native to Southwestern Spain and Southeastern Portugal. Non-acorn-fed Ibéricos are much fatter and have more marbled meat than normal pigs. They are mostly fed cereal feeds and may be allowed in limited free-range time where herbs supplement their diet. Extramadura, in Southwestern Spain, has the largest expanse of open range in Europe, the habitat where Iberian pigs are at their best.
Iberian ham products are processed throughout Extremadura, making this region the country's leading producer. Nearly a million hectares of the open range are used by some 1500 livestock breeders. The main processing areas are in the mountain ranges of southwest Badajoz (1), Ibor and Villuercas (2), the southern Gredos mountain range (3), the Montánchez range (4), and the San Pedro range (5). This is where you could find more than one hundred processing plants registered under the PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) are located.
BLACK IBERIAN PIG
The Iberian pig has dark skin with a sparse coat, a pointed snout, and long, slender legs. The genetic trait of this breed is its ability to store fat in muscle tissue, the key to the unmistakable flavour and texture of Iberico hams.
The Iberian hams are characteristically long and slender. The hoof is dark (pata negra literally means "black hoof") and the flesh ranges in colour from rosy to purplish red. The texture is soft, with fat that is lustrous, fluid and soft to the touch.
Bellota is literally means Acorn. Acorn is a fruit of an oak tree, a smooth oval nut in a rough cup-like base. Acorn-finished pork is a centuries-old tradition that has been handed down from the Mediterranean region of Europe. Acorn-fed pigs are Spanish and Portuguese tradition. Pigs are native to the hardwood forests of Eurasia and there is a growing movement in Europe and America to return to more traditional methods of pork production, which are more humane for the pigs, better for the environment, and healthier for the consumer than pork produced by modern factory farms.
Acorn finished meat is humane, allowing the pigs to enjoy fresh air and sunshine, as well as practice natural behaviors such as rooting and nesting. Many acorn-finished pork producers even allow their sows to farrow in the woods. Because the animals are not too crowded and are able to behave naturally, pastured pigs rarely have problems with stress and boredom-related cannibalism and their tails are generally not docked. Most are completely antibiotic and hormone free.
Finally, acorn-finished pork is tastier and healthier for the consumer. For decades, pork has been marketed as “the other white meat” due to the extreme leanness of factory-farmed pork. Acorn-finished pork, on the other hand, is deep red and well-marbled with fat. Depending on the breed, many acorn-finished hogs even develop the famous “fatback” 3 inches or more of fat from the pig’s back that was once considered a delicacy.
THE CURING PROCESS
SALTING AND WASHING
After the pigs are sacrificed, the freshly cut hams are covered with sea salt for a week or ten days, depending on weight. The rule of thumb is 1 day per 2 pounds of meat. The salting room is kept between 0-3°C at 85-95% humidity. After this period, the hams are rinsed in lukewarm water to remove salt crystals from the surface.
Once cleansed of surface salt, the hams are kept for one to two months in cold rooms at a temperature between 3° and 6° C and a relative humidity of 80 or 90%. During this resting period, the salt penetrates the pieces thoroughly, enhancing dehydration and conservation. This process gives hams a significantly denser consistency, since plenty of water has been removed.
DRYING AND MATURATION
During this period, hams are moved to a "secadero" or natural drying area, where temperature and humidity are controlled through ventilation. Temperature ranges from 15° to 30° C for the 6 to 12 month drying period, during which hams continue to lose moisture, and "sweating" or dissemination of fat throughout the muscle fibers, which then retain the aroma they have acquired also occurs. Due to a series of changes that occur in the protein and fat of these hams, the final flavor and aromas begin to develop during this stage. (This is typically the final stage in the preparation of a Serrano ham.) Unlike prosciutto or Parma ham, the curing ham is not encased in lard or any other external ingredient that might affect the flavor. It is pure ham, waiting to be improved by the mountain air. At the right time, determined by the ham master who inspects each ham, the Ibérico hams are transferred to the bodega where they hang from a cord for as much time as it will take to finish the cure and produce the best product.
Ibérico hams are then hung in cellars, or bodegas, for 2 years or more. Temperature may range between 10° and 20° C, and relative humidity, between 60 and 80%. During this phase, hams continue to undergo the biochemical processes initiated during the curing process, enhanced by microbial flora, which give them their particular aroma and final flavor. Usually the Jamón Ibéricos take at least two years to reach their peak of flavor, some of the finest hams cure for four or even five years. Part of this decision is based upon weight, the larger hams will take a longer time to cure, the other factor in his decision is an art. Determining the time when the Jamón Ibérico is ready is the responsibility of a specialist who draws on years of experience. He inserts a thin sliver of bone into the interior of the curing ham, and by sight and aroma makes his decision. It is similar to a baker inserting toothpick into a baking cake to see if it is done except the stakes are vastly higher, since this meat is so precious.
BODEGA PHASE II
Today the entire production process from slaughter through curing is likely to take place in modern facilities that ensure continuous production, uniform quality and environmental conditions free of the whims of Mother Nature. But this is not necessarily at odds with artisanal processing. The best hams are still cured and inspected one by one, and the wide range of ham prices is partly due to the personalized attention each ham receives during processing.
For example, the end product is very different if the hams are salted individually or if they are placed in a row and salt is thrown over them by a wheel loader. It is very important to use the right amount of salt according to the cut's weight and shape and make sure it is evenly covered. This personalized care is essential in all stages of processing.
CLASSIFICATIONS OF JAMON IBERICO
In January 2014, they introduced a new classification for this premium product by royal decree. This is to ensure the conservation of the Iberico breed and the Dehesas. It is also to clarify the different products on sale and for consumer protection too.
There are 4 categories to the classification of Iberico ham:
Black Label – Jamon 100% Iberico de Bellota
Free range, the pigs are allowed to roam around
This is the top category made with 100% pedigree Iberian pigs 100% acorn fed dehesa
must be at least 14 months before slaughter
The ham is cured for at least 36 months
Red Label – Jamon Iberico de Bellota
The breed is a mix of Iberico and Duroc
This is also acorn fed and free-range, 1.25 pigs/ha
Green Label – Jamon Iberico de Cebo de Campo
This pig is at least 50% Iberian,
Allowed to roam freely outdoors
Fed a compound of grains and fodder.
Age at slaughter 12 months
White Label – Jamon Iberico de Cebo
This pig is at least Iberian and Duroc (50%-75)
Reared in enclosed pens
Fed with fodder only.
10 months old at time of slaughter
The saline concentration of brine, and ensure observation of minimum periods for verification. The Producers' Association is responsible for identifying and branding pigs in their grazing areas, and overseeing their diet during the finishing period. It then monitors the slaughter of the animals, and hind leg and shoulder hams are given an indelible, numbered tags for supervision of the entire maturation process. The Producers' Association of each Designation of Origin exercises stringent control over the entire production process of drying and aging in cellars. Upon completion of this process, which takes at least 20 months for hind legs and 12 months for shoulder cuts, it is the Producers' Association which grades and labels these hams before they are shipped to consumers.
Labelling (see picture in the right) classifies hams into two categories, based on their quality:
Jamón de Bellota grade: The pig enters the finishing period weighing 80-105 Kilos, and replaces about 60% of its entry weight on a diet of acorns and grasses.
Jamón deCebo de Campo grade: The animal has a varied diet, including feeds authorized by the
Producers' Association and herbage from the dehesa pastureland, in an area that is completely or partially uncovered, with a minimum of 100 m2 available per animal.
Labels may also refer to the genetic characteristics of the animal, distinguishing between 100% Iberian Pigs (purebred) and crossbreeds (which are at least 75% Iberian bloodstock).
All of the farms and industries involved in the process of ham production are registered with the Producers' Association.
Bellota Grade (a diet exclusively of acorns and grasses during the finishing period) Premium quality
Green label of the Cebo de Campo quality Cebo de campo grade (a diet of authorized feeds)
Labelling of the D.O. Dehesa de Extramadura Red Label of the Bellota Quality
SERVING AND STORAGE
Ham should be consumed at room temperature, or about 21ºC. At this temperature, the fat appears lustrous; when it is too cold, its appearance is more opaque. Slices should be thin, of medium size, and contain a certain amount of marbled fat that gives them their particular succulence. In addition to its incomparable flavour, the nutritional properties of "bellota" quality Iberico ham make it an ideal complement to a healthy, balanced diet.
Neither hind leg nor shoulder cuts require special storage conditions, although they should be kept in a cool, dry place (between 15º and 25º), preferably hanging, or on a ham holder. Any ham that is cut should be consumed immediately, or wrapped in wax paper or cling wrap to avoid contact with air. In any case, it is recommended that you cut only as much as will be consumed. Each time you slice the ham, protect the cut area with some of the larger pieces of lard and rind, so that the fat on the surface always remains fresh. To further protect the ham it is recommended that you cover it with a clean dish towel.
HEALTH BENEFITS OF JAMON IBERICO DE BELLOTA
The fat of Iberico bellota ham contains over 55% oleic acid (a mono-unsaturated fatty acid). Rigorous scientific studies have shown that these fats exercise a beneficial effect on cholesterol in the blood by increasing the amount of good (HDL) cholesterol and reducing bad (LDL) cholesterol. Only virgin olive oil has a higher oleic acid content. The total proportion of unsaturated fatty acids in cured Pata Negra hams that have consumed a diet of acorns is over 75%, making it the most "cardio healthy" of all animal fats, even healthier than some fats of plant origin. The breed of pigs is not the only explanation; their staple diet of acorns and grasses also plays an important role. In addition to its beneficial effect on cholesterol, Iberico ham provides proteins, vitamins B1, B6, B12 and folic acid, all highly beneficial for the nervous system and proper functioning of the brain. It is also rich in vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant, and in minerals such as copper, essential for bones and cartilage; calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, phosphorus and finally, selenium, which has been attributed with anti-aging properties.
HEALTH BENEFITS OF JAMON IBERICO DE BELLOTA
With regard to calories, 100 grams of Iberico bellota ham provides less than 250 kcal (roughly the same as bread), meaning that, eaten in moderation, it can be included in low-calorie diets. It is also an excellent substitute for red meat: 100 grams of ham contains 43 grams of protein.
The salt is virtually the only part of the ham that is a little unhealthy. To reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, the WHO recommends a maximum daily salt intake of 5 grams (even less for children and adolescents), but the global average is twice this amount, lying somewhere between 8 and 11 grams. Iberian ham has the lowest salt content of all hams (between 2.5% and 4.5%), followed by Serrano ham (5%), Bayonne ham (5.5%), and Parma ham (5.7%). The secret lies in the genetic make-up of the Iberian pig, as its marbled fat and the higher pH levels of its meat prevent the salt from penetrating. When compared to other food products, it is on a par with Roquefort cheese or olives, for example. Unfortunately, salt is a necessary ingredient in the production of ham, as the meat would rot without it. It also acts as a flavour enhancer; a ham with less than 2.5% salt content would taste insipid and even have an unpleasant texture on the palate.