Jamon Iberico (Puro) de Bellota–Absolutely, Positively the World’s Most Luxurious Ham!

Jamón Ibérico (Puro) de Bellota (Pure) Iberico Ham of Acorn-fed Pig

Spanish hams are revered the world over. And of all the hams of Spain, Jamón Ibérico Puro de Bellota—especially that produced in the towns of Guijuelo and Jabujo, in the provinces of Salamanca and Huelva, respectively—is the most prized. Both towns have their own Denominación de Origen (DO), the established system for certifying that the hams labeled and marketed as of the designated area are produced per specified standards.

A special breed of swine, the black Ibérico pig which descends from the Mediterranean wild boar, is the raw material of this most luxurious ham. Native to southern and southwestern Spain (and southern Portugal) and domesticated over the centuries, the Ibérico hog is mid-sized with a long snout and long, forward-pointing ears; has black skin and very little hair; and possesses slender, tapered, elegant legs which are punctuated by characteristic black hooves (hence the sobriquet, “pata negra”). Because the Ibérico has more body fat than most other pigs, it can be cured for a much longer period. And because of a high percentage of intramuscular fat, each thin slice of the ham is packed with flavor.

There are many types of hams made from many breeds of pigs. But for a ham to be labeled “Jamón Ibérico Puro de Bellota,” it must derive from an animal duly registered in the pedigree books maintained by official breeders.

But Jamón Ibérico Puro de Bellota needs more than just good breeding; it must also have good taste. And to achieve that taste, age-old Spanish traditions are employed. The pigs destined for this special ham are never fed grain. Once weened of their mothers’ milk, they are spayed or neutered before becoming free-ranging pigs. Special tracts of land called dehesas—meadows carpeted with grass, herbs, wild flowers, mushrooms and shaded by Holm oak and cork oak trees—are where the pigs run and root for two years. The mandated pig-dehasa ratio is approximately five acres per pig. And during the “montanara,” or acorn-dropping season from late September to December, the pigs dine almost exclusively on the acorns that fall from the oaks to the ground. Sometimes, to the delight of the pigs, the “porquero,” Spanish for swineherd, uses a long stick to thrash the acorns from the branches. During the montanara, the average pig consumes approximately 11 pounds of acorns per day, gaining approximately two pounds per diem in the process. And as he forages about in pursuit of the sweet acorns and drinking holes, each pig gains muscle mass. Typically, each pig gets to enjoy two montanaras before being “sacrificed” for market at a weight of about 350 pounds, shortly after eating primarily acorns for the last three months of its life. And that final gorging on acorns figures significantly in the making of Jamón Ibérico de Bellota.

Once quartered, the hind legs are salted for approximately two weeks before the hams are washed and allowed to dry for approximately six weeks. Thereafter, the hams are hung in a well ventilated room to cure. Acorns, more so than anything else in the pigs’ diet, give the ham its distinct, sweet, nutty flavor. Acorns are high in oleic acid and antioxidants. The oleic acid produces in the pigs an unsaturated fat which is packed with flavor and melts in the mouth. During the curing process, as the ham “sweats” in the warmer months, the oleic acid penetrates the muscle fibers, causing subtle flavors to concentrate. And the antioxidants protect the curing hams from bacteria, allowing the ham to be aged longer and with less salt than other hams. Jamón Ibérico de Bellota is typically cured for at least 30 months, some producers extending the curing process to as many as 48 and even 60 months. The warm, dry summers and mild winters of the region are perfect for the curing of the hams.

Jamón Ibérico de Bellota is typically available pre-sliced in paper-money-thin cuts about the length of a credit card (quite appropriately!), or as a whole ham. When in the form of a whole ham, it should be unpacked and allowed to “breathe” at room temperature for approximately two days before it is first sliced. Most manufacturers of this luxurious ham offer clients the required equipment plus instructions for slicing, serving, and storing the ham.

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