The Wonder of Jamón IbéricoPaul Richardson investigates the world of ibérico ham. From what to look for when you buy, to the environment and traditions that make this delicacy what it is.
It’s a familiar sight during the winter months in Spain’s deep interior: see a forest of grey-green holm oaks, stretching away into the distance, with a troop of black pigs rootling underneath them. Dehesa, the collective term for this man-made woodland, is probably Spain’s most characteristic ecotope, covering around 2.4m hectares of the country’s south-western flank.
For centuries the ibérico pig – a direct descendant of the wild boar Sus mediterranea which once roamed the forests of the Mediterranean basin - has been the rightful lord of this landscape. Noted for its hairless charcoal-grey body, floppy ears and hardy constitution, the breed is closely connected to its original woodland habitat. Holm-oak acorns, supplemented by grass and roots, provide the pigs with a perfectly balanced diet, giving rise eventually to one of the world’s most egregious delicacies - acorn-fed ham from the Iberian pig, known in Spanish as jamón de bellota ibérico.
From Shanghai to Shoreditch, who doesn’t love a slice or two - or three, or four - of fine ibérico ham? The Spanish like to joke that this is the one meat product even strict vegetarians will make an exception for. Aptly described by a writer in The Economist as ‘without question the most glorious use to which a pig can be put on this planet’, a fine acorn-fed ibérico ham will fetch several hundred pounds at retail, rising to thousands for a ‘reserva’ from a top producer like Joselito or Sánchez Romero Carvajal.
It wasn’t always this way. During the 1960s and 1970s the dehesa as a generator of rural prosperity was finally eclipsed by the boom-town glamour of the Mediterranean coast. Holm oaks were regularly uprooted to make way for irrigation schemes or plantations of eucalyptus. Meanwhile the ibérico pig itself became increasingly rare as farmers turned to the fast-growing Duroc and Landrace breeds hailing from northern Europe.
As if all that wasn’t bad enough, from the 1960s onwards Spanish pork exports were widely prohibited thanks to sporadic outbreaks of swine fever. During the wilderness years Italian ham manufacturers stepped into the breach, prosciutto di Parma become a worldwide phenomenon, and a whole generation of consumers grew up in ignorance of the wonder that is Spanish ham. So that, in the late 1980s, when a trickle of the good stuff finally began to arrive on UK dining tables, it was a revelation. Though Parma ham was sweet and tender, jamón ibérico had a much greater intensity of flavour. It was much more long-lasting and complex, with an intense savouriness that would eventually be identified as a prime example of the mysterious ‘fifth flavour’ umami.
The world of ibérico is a complex universe, plagued with traps for the unwary. For many years the sector was poorly regulated and confusion reigned. A new system, created in 2014, has helped bring some order to the chaos but can still be a little confusing to the uninitiated. The legislation establishes four different grades with a corresponding colour code (white, green, red, and black) and varying requirements in terms of breed purity, diet (acorns and/or cereals), and time spent in the dehesa. Essentially the more acorns the better, as the oils and enzymes they contain are essential determinants of true ibérico character. Black label, for example, covers only the highest-quality and most expensive hams, produced from pure-breed ibérico pigs that have roamed free and gorged on acorns in the time-honoured fashion. That said, Red label hams, from mixed-breed animals whose diet is also acorn-based; or green label, mixed-breed and cereal-fed; can offer excellent value for money.
Spain has four Denominaciones de Origen Protegida (DOP), or Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), applying to ibérico ham, each located in a different province of western Spain. DOP Guijuelo, in Salamanca, home of the famous Joselito, has little dehesa but benefits from the dry, cold climate of winter on the high plains. DOP Dehesa de Extremadura has the perfect terroir, but this region’s roasting summer climate means that the hams tend to be cured in refrigerated drying-sheds. DOP Jabugo, at the far north of Huelva province in Andalucía, has both extensive dehesa landscapes and a cold winter climate allowing for a natural, air-dried cure. (The fourth, DOP Los Pedroches, lies in the foothills of Sierra Morena, in Córdoba province.)
In all these places, however, the journey from pork to fork runs along similar lines. In spring and summer the pigs are fed sparingly on maize and wheat. When the acorns fall in late autumn, they are let loose into the dehesa for a pig-out of massive proportions. At the height of the season (known as the montanera) they are said to consume 7-8kg of holm-oak acorns a day and, amazingly, pick up as much as 40 per cent of their final body weight during the last three months of their happy lives. It’s said the pigs even come to learn which trees give the sweetest acorns, and make for those first.
After slaughter, the fresh hams are first buried in salt to begin the curing process, then removed to a drying loft where they are encouraged to “sweat” in the heats of summer, and finally hung on ropes in dark bodegas for a long, slow cure lasting at least two years. After a year, now speckled with natural moulds, the hams have the look of lichen-encrusted rocks, or the trunks of the holm oaks from which they came. The hooves however remain a shiny jet black. Though this in itself is no guarantee of quality, the Spanish term ‘pata negra’ (black foot) has come to mean anything absolutely genuine and authentic – ‘the real deal’.
When the moment comes for the hams to be taken down, sold, and eaten, a new set of factors comes into play. First of all, a good Spanish ham must be expertly cut into serving slices – this being a skill that only comes with a great deal of practice and involves wielding a long, thin, razor-sharp ham knife. In Spain the cortador de jamón (ham carver) is a much-admired professional who earns a good living practising his or her craft at weddings, food fairs and official receptions. Thankfully even the best hams are now presented in pre-cut slices and vacuum-packed for easy serving, so that all that need to be done is to arrange the slices on a plate, allowing a few minutes for the ham to reach room temperature and ‘breathe’.
What should you look for in a fine ibérico ham? First, the visual aspect of the meat, which should be closely textured and of a colour that’s neither bright and rosy, nor dark, but a rich purple. If you see spots of white among the meat, these are in fact crystals of the amino acid tyrosine. What sets a good Spanish ham apart from its rivals (hello, Parma) is the deep, reverberant flavour, sweetly nutty and long-lasting in the mouth, and a saltiness that is not just superficial but seems to have melded seamlessly with the rest of the ham’s complex flavour profile.
Nothing about a good ham need be wasted. True ibérico fans love the silky, unctuous, ivory-coloured fat, cherishing it almost as much as the meat itself. Parts of the ham that the slicing knife cannot reach are often chopped into taquitos (diced pieces) to be used in croquetas, or for boosting the flavour of a vegetable dish such as menestra. Even the bones are highly valued, and pieces of hueso de jamón are used as a kind of natural stock cube in Spanish stews and cocidos.
Brindisa works with leading producer Señorio de Montanera, based among the rolling dehesas of Badajoz province, to bring you a range of ibérico options. Our 50g and 100g vacuum packs, pre-sliced and ready for serving, offer excellent value for money. But at the very top of the range, the Rolls-Royce of jamones is the whole leg, aged for three years of more, of a 100% pure-breed ibérico pig that has feasted on acorns in the wide open spaces of the dehesa.
At ₤680 a piece, this is one delicacy that doesn’t come cheap. Then again, what is the price of perfection?