When I am hungry, I can’t help thinking about jamón – and when Spaniards say jamón, we really mean jamón ibérico. This authentic delight is the cured meat from an Iberian pig leg; it’s both as simple and as complicated as that. Simple, yes, because there is very little human manipulation involved; and, other than thermal controls, it is a natural product. But complicated because, regrettably, there’s been too much confusion in the market and in the media. If you go to the grocery store, you can find jamón ibérico costing between 39€ and 300€ per kilo – so why the huge range in price?
While a cross-breed Iberian pig is accepted as Iberian pork if the mother is pure Iberian breed, before the new regulation there was no obligation to specify whether the animal was feed-fed or raised free-range in the dehesa
To make it easier, here is an infographic simplifying the current labelling rules, which have applied since 2014. As you can appreciate, only one type of ham is pure Iberian acorn-fed of the highest quality. By that, I don’t mean that the other hams are bad or unhealthy; if well-produced they give us tasty and excellent jamón ibérico – and I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I said I only ever buy 100% Iberian acorn-fed.
When talking about Iberian pork, you have to consider two factors: first, how it is raised (free-range or kept inside) and second, the diet. In general terms, a 100% Iberian acorn-fed ham is obtained from an animal no younger than 14 months, that roots around the dehesa, grazing on grass, mushrooms, bugs, herbs and fruits until acorn season comes during the period named montanera. From October to March acorns fall from oak trees and cover the ground; that is the cerdo ibérico’s preferred meal.
But acorns are scarce and consequently very few pigs have access to them. Who would utilise a precious natural resource to feed inferior-quality pigs?
The bucolic environment called dehesa is a mountainous area in south-western Spain and southern Portugal. It is a unique natural reserve and a extraordinary ecosystem where native black Iberian pigs settled long ago. Unfortunately, the sustainability of the dehesa is being threatened because many of the traditional elements which make up its delicate environmental balance are now in decline or are non-existent, such as extensive livestock farming, transhumance (moving livestock between high and low pastures according to season) and cork-harvesting.
But as mentioned above, black pigs don’t eat acorns all year long, simply because the acorn season only lasts for about four months – one more legend that should be demystified. The rest of the year, the king of the Iberian savannah eats chestnuts, wild mushrooms, fresh herbs and aromatic plants. Each hog has space enough – 2 hectares of land, and that’s not extravagant keeping in mind that on the dehesa there are 60 to 70 feet of oak and holm oak per hectare and every single pig consumes ad libitum from 12 to 14 kilos of acorns per day! (They only assimilate part of this vast amount.) The pig has a capricious appetite – he doesn’t eat in a constant rhythm and he doesn’t like all the acorns. But he eats enough to gain around 50 kg in about six months, so the final weight is between 14 and 16 arrobas (1 arroba = 11,5 kg). It is precisely during montanera period and the fast acorn-based fattening when all beneficial properties from the fruit are infiltrated into the animal’s fat, which becomes heart-healthy and rich in vitamins B1, B6, B12, E and folic acid. Jamón ibérico is the four-legged olive oil.
Jamón ibérico is heart-healthy and rich in vitamins and folic acid. It’s the four-legged olive oil
Several aspects can guide us. Pay attention to the hoof – the black Iberian pig has rounded and well-worn hooves because the animal has lived in freedom and has exercised. Another interesting factor is to observe the haunch: it must be slender, one of the main characteristics of the Iberian pork breed. Pata negra? Watch out! Not all Iberian pigs have black hooves.
Not all Iberian pigs have back hooves, so be careful with the denomination pata negra
But there is one tip that never fails. The exterior fat of a 100% jamón ibérico de bellota (acorn-fed Iberian ham) melts with the slightest pressure from your fingers. Human body heat (36ºC) dissolves unsaturated fats which melt at low temperature. When you cut into the leg, the marbled meat emerges, and the thin slice of ham (never longer than 3 or 4cm) instantly melts in your mouth.
If you have the opportunity to buy a whole bone-in jamón ibérico, it is advisable to keep the jamón hung at room temperature (18º-25º C), without the cover in a cool and dry place, away from drafts and direct heat. The piece will keep all flavors for 18 months. One started, we recommend it is consumed within 30 days.
Remember the bigger the leg is, the better. A good jamón ibérico should weigh between 7.5 kg and 8 kg, and the shoulder blade from 5.5 kg to 6 kg.