When talking about Spanish culture and cuisine, Jamón is the first to come to mind. Jamón Ibérico is known for its rich flavors, aroma, texture, and fat infiltrations that make it one of Spain’s pride. The ancestors of the unique animals that produce these hams can be traced back to prehistory when they ran wild in the Iberian Peninsula. The famous Columbus had a few of them located on Santa Maria, it is the time he set out for the discovery of the New World.
Jamón Ibérico de Bellota (which literally means acorn-fed) pigs have the freedom to roam around the meadow of the ‘dehesa’, ancient rangeland in the western part of Spain. These pigs please themselves with acorns (bellotas) from the scattered cork and holm oak trees, thus adding as much as a kilo in their weight per day. Some hams, usually the whole ones, can be sold for a price of $2,000 and above per piece. When they are cured for at least 3-4 years of time, they lose as much as half of their original weight because of the melting fats. But after that curing process, the hams turn out to have an incredibly complex taste, very deep red in terms of its color, distinct marbling, and an intense ham flavor bathed in mono-unsaturated fat.
Another type of ham is the Iberian ham which is produced from Cerdo Ibérico, which is a native pig of Southwestern Spain and Southeastern Portugal. These non-acorn-fed Ibéricos are much heavier and fatter than normal pigs, they also have more marbled meat. It is because they are mostly fed feeds out of cereal and are allowed in free-range of time where herbs supplement their daily diet. A place called Extremadura, located in Southwestern Spain, has the largest expanse of open range area in Europe, the habitat of the best Iberian pigs in the world.
Also, Extremadura is where most Iberian ham products are processed throughout, thus being the country’s leading producer. Almost one million hectares of open range area are used by the 1500 livestock breeders. These are the mountain ranges used as main processing areas; the mountain ranges of Southwest Badajoz (1), Ibor and Villuercas (2), the Southern Gredos mountain range (3), The Montánchez range (4), and lastly, being the fifth in the list, the San Pedro range. You could find more than a hundred processing plants here in these places, registered under the PDO (Protected Designation of Origin).
Black Iberian Pig
A typical Iberian pig is dark in terms of its color, has a thinly dispersed coat, a not-so-sharp snout, and also has long and slim legs. This breed has the ability to store fats in its muscle tissues because of a certain genetic trait. That is something helpful for the unmistakable flavor and texture of Ibérico hams.
Iberian hams are usually long and slender in appearance. The hoof is dark (usually referred to as pata negra) and the color of its flesh varies from purple-like red and rosy. This kind of ham is very soft and has fat that is shiny, fluid-like, and soft to touch.
The word “Bellota” is the Spanish translation of the word “Acorn” which is a fruit of an oak tree, a smooth oval nut in a rough cup-like base. Pork that is usually finished with the use of acorns is a tradition, way back centuries before, passed down coming from Europe’s Mediterranean region. More to that, pigs that are fed with acorn (acorn-fed) commonly came from Spanish and Portuguese’ traditions. These pigs are native to Eurasia, specifically in hardwood forests of the place, and there is an existing growing movement in America and Europe to bring back the traditional methods of pork production. These said methods are more lenient for the pigs, bring better results to our environment, and give more health benefits to consumers, rather than pork that are processed and produced with modernized factory farms.
When meat is acorn-finished, it is considered more lenient to pigs because it means that they are allowed to grasp fresh air and get more sunlight, also having the opportunity to practice several natural behaviors, two of which are nesting and rooting. In addition to that, several acorn-finished pork producers even let their pigs freely give birth in the woods. Pastured pigs experience “little to none at all” issues relating to stress and boredom that result in cannibalism because of their freedom to roam around their habitat, having less close contact with each other, and their ability to behave naturally on their own. Their tails are also not tied up, and they are mostly complete from antibiotics and are hormone-free.
Another thing is that acorn-finished pork has a richer taste and has more health benefits for its consumers. It's been decades that pork has been known as “the other white meat” due to the utmost slenderness of factory-farmed pork. On the other hand, pork that has been acorn-finished has more fat, is well-marbled to be exact, and is very red in color. Several acorn-finished pigs even developed the famous “fatback” which is the 3 inches of fat or more from their back, depending on their breed, and it was once listed as a delicacy.
The Curing Process
Salting and Washing
The pig will be prepared to cut into desired size and measurement. Therefore the pig's meat that is cut into small portions, must be coated with sea salt and placed in the cold room temperature, and stored for several days. After that, bathe the meat in slightly warm water to rub out the sea salt.
The Curing Process
During this period, the hams are stored in a low-temperature room for up to two months to let the salt penetrate each of the pieces thoroughly. The dehydration and conservation in the hams are enhanced, hence, giving them a much better consistency.
Drying and Maturation
In this phase, hams are transferred to the natural drying area or “secadero”. The drying stage lasts for about 6-12 months so the hams could continue to lose moisture and sweat. The final flavor and aroma starts to develop in this stage due to changes in protein and fat. The Ibérico hams are transported to the bodega at the right time, specified by the ham master who inspects each ham.
In this phase, Ibérico hams are cured for up to two years before being hung for two years or more in cellars or bodegas. They go through several biochemical processes to attain their distinct fragrance and taste. Best hams usually take up to five years to mature; the larger the ham, the longer it will take to cure. By sight and smell, a specialist with years of experience can determine when the meat is ready.
Bodega Phase II
Nowadays, production process (slaughter to curing) is usually done in modern facilities to ensure their quality. But, the best hams are still cured and inspected one by one and are being priced according to the process it underwent. Some hams can taste different when they are salted individually rather than being placed in a row and salt is just thrown over them by a wheel loader. This personalized care is essential in all stages of the processing
CLASSIFICATIONS OF JAMON IBERICO
It was in January 2014 when they introduced a new classification for this premium product by royal decree. This new classification is to ensure that the Iberico breed and the Dehesas will be conserved. Also, this is to clarify various products on sale and of course, for the protection of every consumer too.
Classification of Ibérico hams are categorized into four (4) groups:
Black Label – The Jamón that’s pure and 100% Ibérico de Bellota. These Black Labels are:
Pigs that are free to roam around the area (Free-range)
The Top category made with a hundred percent (100%) pedigree Iberian pigs that are 100% acord-fed dehesa
Pigs that must reach their 14th month before slaughter
Ham that is cured for up to 36 months of time
Red Label – or The 50% Jamón Ibérico de Bellota. These
Red Labels are:
A mix breed of Duroc and Iberico breed
Same with Black Label, Red Label hams are also acorn-fed and has free-range, 1.25 pigs/ha
Green Label – or the Jamón Ibérico Cebo de Campo. These Green Labels are:
PIgs that are at least 50% Iberian breed
Pigs that are free to roam outdoors
Fed with a compound of fodder and grains
Slaughtered at the age of at least 12 months
White Label – or The Jamón Ibérico de Cebo. These White Labels are:
Pigs that are at least 50% to 75% mix breed of Iberian and Duroc
Pigs that are nurtured in enclosed pens
Fed with only fodder
Slaughtered at the age of at least 10 months
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 - classifies hams into two categories, based on their quality:
Jamón de Bellota grade: The pig that weighs about 80-105 kilos will then enter its finishing period while replacing as much as 60% of its entry weight with a diet that includes grass and acorns.
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.
Labelling of the D.O. Dehesa de Extramadura Red Label of the Bellota Quality
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)
SERVING AND STORAGE
The ham must serve at room temperature or for about 21°C. At this Temperature, the fats of the ham will have a natural glow but if too cold the ham can be too dull. The proper size of how to serve the “bellota” a quality Iberico ham should be thin with some fat to thoroughly savor the ham. This is also good for a person on a diet, because this ham has nutritional properties and a rich flavour so they don’t have to consume a lot.
They should be stored in a cool and dry place with a preferable temperature of 15° to 25° while hanging or with a ham holder. If ham is cut it must be wrapped with wax paper or cling wrap for the ham to not catch air. Whenever they are cut, the ham must be protected by placing a large piece of a rind and lard for the fatty parts to remain fresh, and to further protect them use a clean dish towel. And do not cut any of them if they are not being consumed soon.
HEALTH BENEFITS OF
JAMON IBERICO DE BELLOTA
A total of over 55% of oleic acid (a mono-unsaturated fatty acid) can be seen in the famous Ibérico de Bellota ham. A thorough scientific study showed that these kinds of fats have beneficial effects on the blood’s cholesterol through the increasing amount of good cholesterol or the HDL while reducing the amount of bad cholesterol or the LDL. Only virgin olive oil has a higher count of oleic acid than this. Cured Pata Negra hams that are acorn-fed have a total proportion of unsaturated fatty acids up to 75% and more. This makes it the most “cardio healthy” of all the animal fats and even healthier than fats of a plant origin. The pigs’ breed is not the only cause of that; an even better factor is their main diet that consists of grasses and acorns. In addition to that said beneficial effect on the cholesterol, Ibérico hams also provide a lot of vitamins, some of them being vitamin B1, B6, B12, it also provides proteins and folic acid that all contributes and gives benefits to a body’s nervous system and proper functioning of one’s brain. Vitamins and minerals that have anti-aging properties can also be acquired from Ibérico hams; iron, calcium, zinc, magnesium, selenium, and phosphorus. These hams are also rich in vitamin E which is a great antioxidant, and of course, copper which is essential to the bones and cartilages of the body.
A hundred grams of Ibérico de Bellota ham only provides 250 kcal or even less than (almost as same as a piece of bread) that makes it a possible low-calorie diet, given that it is eaten in moderation. A hundred grams of it also contains 43 grams of protein that makes it a great alternative for red meat.
With a lot of nutrients seen in this ham, the salt can be the only one that is considered a little unhealthy. The World Health Organization (WHO) only recommends a maximum of 5 grams of daily salt intake to reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, the global average is doubled this amount, ranging from 8 to 11 grams. Iberian hams, however, only have 2.5% to 4.5% of salt being the ham with the lowest salt content among all other hams; mainly, Serrano ham with a salt content of 5%, Bayonne ham with 5.5%, and the Parma ham with 5.7% salt content. The secret to this ham’s low salt content is in the genetic build of Iberian pigs, their marbled fat and high pH levels of the meat itself block salt penetration. It can be equal to a Roquefort cheese or olives, for example. On the other hand, salt is an essential ingredient when producing a ham because meat without salt in it would rot eventually. It can also enhance the ham’s flavor because a ham with less than 2.5% of salt content would be lacking flavor and can even have an unsatisfying texture when eaten.
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