Iberian Ham is a tradition that dates back hundredths of years... as far back as the roman empire. Not too long ago, Jamon Iberico was reserved for those of royal lineage...
It is considered the finest ham in the world.
In fact Jamon Iberico led the top 4 world’s finest foods list. The honorable list defines foie, caviar, truffle and jamon iberico as the four gastronomic pearls.
Jamon Iberico presents rich marbling, a smooth texture and rich, savory taste. This is the result of a combination of factors that have been perfected over time. The factors are: The breed, the feed and the technique.
Not your average Pig
Jamon Iberico is made from Iberian Pigs... and Iberian pigs are NOT your average pigs. The origin of the Iberico pig goes back a centuries, as far back as to the to the time cavemen roamed Europe. There are written accounts about the quality of Iberian pigs that date back to the year 77 AC.
Iberico hogs are huge, they can weight up to 430 pounds. They have slender legs and a very long snout. They are dark grey and do not have much hair. Their hooves are black as night, which is where the term "Pata Negra" comes from.
Iberico Pigs are different... their digestive system has the capacity to transform the acorns and the rest of foods that make up their diet into heart-healthy fats.
Their size and their thick layer of fat makes Iberico Pigs ideal to make ham because they can be cured for much longer... and that results in a very intense, oily and complex flavor that is simply unparalleled.
The better fed the hogs are, the better they taste. Its simple, just like beef and just like... well anything... Pigs are what they eat. There are two types of Jamon Iberico... there is Jamon Iberico, and then there is Jamon Iberico de Bellota, or acorn fed.
The very best jam comes from pig that are fed acorns (bellota).
An oak tree can produce, on average, about 44 lbs of annual acorns, therefore to ensure sufficient food strict guidelines apply, and a minimum of 1 hectare per pig is required. The pigs raised this way are called "100% acorn fed". But they are a minority...
Most Jamon Iberico is not acorn-fed. It is made from Iberico pigs who live normal pig lives eating corn and other feed. It is still an excellent ham, benefiting from the noble lineage of the Iberico pig.
Those pigs who are destined for Bellota status, are sent to roam on natural pastureland that cover large expanses of central and southwestern Spain called "The dehesa".
These natural ecosystems, dotted with holm oak trees provide grasses, grains, tubers, insects, and wild mushrooms, as well as an abundance of acorns or bellotas, that Ibérico pigs consume in great quantities. All of this sets the Ibérico bellota hams apart from other categories of cured pork products.
The curing technique
Depending on the quality desired, Iberico jams will be cured from 2-4 years, and sometimes even for longer. The hams are cured hanging and in salt.
This extraordinarily long process is possible because of the huge amount of fat Iberico pigs have in their hams. Particularly those who were fed acorns... during the curing period, the legs will lose almost half of their weight to sweat.
The salt prevents bacteria growth and allows for significant chemical changes that make the meat dry and give it a very unique flavor. Most legs will of ham will go through this process at-least 2 times, but can be up to four or more. The pigs that were fed acorns will have a deeper transformation and the saturated fats will transform into a healthy unsaturated fat which is extremely rich in oleic acid.
The result is this oily, super flavorful, tender jam that we get to know as Jamon Iberico, and in its most premium version.. Jamon Iberico de Bellota (Acorn Fed).
This extraordinarily long curing process is possible because of the huge amount of fat on each ham and, in the case of the Bellota hams, the antioxidant quality of their diets.
Over the curing period the hams lose nearly half their weight as the fat drips away. The salt helps the ham dry and keeps bacteria away. Through this period of heating and cooling, salting and drying, the fats are broken down. Because of the antioxidants in the acorns and the unique curing process, the saturated fats are changed into healthy mono-unsaturated fats high in oleic acid. The only fat higher in oleic acid is olive oil.
The result is a build up of complex, volatile molecules in the ham that transform it from a piece of pork into an orchestra of flavors.
The carving technique
The way Jamon Iberico is carved and served will have a significant impact on its flavor and texture. Ideally, you want paper thin slices served at roughly 75 degrees.
Because Jamon Iberico is best served thin, hand-carving makes a difference. Machine-slicing Jamón can alter the flavor, adding a metallic taste, numbs the aroma and causes loss of the properties that make it so special.
When the ham properly sliced by hand, each part of the leg must be cut in its own unique way. Only by respecting this tradition can you taste the four district flavors that each part of the jamón will offer: maza (marbled), babilla/contramaza (drier), jarrete/codillo (slightly sweet) and punta (the saltier lower part).