If you're not familiar with Mediterranean cuisine, you may not have heard of Jamon Iberico. Popularly known as the finest ham in the world, pork-lovers have consumed the Spanish delicacy for thousands of years across the Iberian Peninsula.
It was first mentioned by Martial, the Roman poet in the 1st Century AD. Since then, the slaughter of pigs has long been a cause for celebration in many rural parts of this country, with the hind legs cured and salted to be consumed as jamón – the finest ham the world has ever tasted.
A Distinct Breed
Iberico hogs are massive, weighing up to 430 pounds. They have large snouts and slender legs. While most breeds are dark grey in color and have sparse hair, some 200 rare species are reddish brown. However, their hooves are pitch black, earning the nickname "Pata Negra."
Iberico Pigs are considered unique because of their digestive ability to convert the acorns and other nutrients in their diet into heart-healthy fats. Since their thick coating and huge weight allow them to be cured for a longer period of time, these pigs are ideal for making ham.
A Mediterranean Marvel
Native to Portugal and parts of Spain, Iberico Pigs come from the rare breed of wild boars. Also considered as the world's finest pork for hundreds of years, it's known for its savory taste, smooth texture, and rich marbling. Interestingly, Iberico was a rarity in the roman empire and was reserved exclusively for the royal family's consumption.
Currently, only Cordoba, Badajoz, Salamanca, Huelva, and Caceres provinces produce it in Spain. While Jamon is the Spanish term for this Iberian delicacy, Presunto Iberico is its Portuguese name.
Whether it's the small villages or the bustling cities, the Peninsula's culinary tradition would be incomplete without Jamon. From family meals, pizza toppings, salads, pasta, and even sandwiches, you'd find the swine spread out across 5-star restaurant menus, late-night bars, and even gourmet shops. In fact, the Spanish alone consumes roughly 160,000 tonnes of Iberico every year, and as the rest of the world catches up, export prices are rising.
How is Iberico Pork Different than Your Regular Pig Meat?
While you might expect all types of meat to look alike, Iberico is nothing like typical pork. In fact, when it's raw, it looks more like beef. This is because ordinary ham is white, whereas Iberico has a reddish-brown tone to it.
What makes Iberico different is the fat content. Because these pigs are given an acorn diet, much of their body fat can penetrate their muscles, so you get a slice of more flavorful meat. In addition to having a high-fat content, it contains a significant amount of oleic fat, also found in olive oil. This helps reduce cholesterol and is a vital ingredient of the Mediterranean diet.
Moreover, the marbling of the ham not just gives it a rich and distinct appearance but also makes it juicy, flavorful, and tasty. Because the pigs' diet consists primarily of acorns, the ham has a distinct nutty flavor that sets it apart from the rest.
Not to mention that it's the world's richest pork, and regular meat doesn't even come close to its taste or texture.
Breeding Process of Iberico Pigs
You are what you eat. This holds true for Iberian pigs as well. Jamon Iberico comes in two variants: regular Jamon Iberico and Jamon Iberico de Bellota, or acorn fed Jamon Iberico. However, the best ham comes from pigs raised on acorns.
The Iberian pigs require the proper diet and habitat to produce their distinct flavor. For this purpose, the animals must move around in the fresh pasture, particularly near Dehesas, and graze on an acorn that carpets the grasslands during the autumn and winter months.
The ones consuming an acorn-based diet are known as "100% acorn-fed". However, they make only a tiny percentage of the total Iberico pigs. This is because most Jamon Iberico pigs aren't raised on acorns and grow on a regular diet containing corn and other feed.
While the pigs consume grass, mushrooms, bugs, and herbs during the spring and summer months. From October through March, acorns fall from trees, and pigs are left to graze and fatten up. The Iberico pigs love acorns and eat around 10 kilos each day. This will make them fatter and infuse the acorn flavor into their muscles. The acorn in the Iberico's diet is vital for its distinctive flavor and aroma.
The Curing Technique
Once the pigs have reached their target weight, they are ready for slaughter. While the hind legs are cured for jamón, other sections of the pork are used for sausages and regular cuts.
Iberico hams are cured for 2-4 years, sometimes even longer, depending on the desired quality. The legs are cured in salt for a week before being washed and hung to dry for three months in a temperature-controlled area.
The salt prohibits bacteria from growing and allows for major chemical changes in the meat, making it dry and giving it a distinct flavor. After that, it is dried in a ventilated room where it stays up to 18 months or more. The legs are then placed in a dark chamber for another 4 to 5 years for the final curing process. Finally, they are washed and packaged to prepare for sale.
The Carving Technique
The carving technique of the Jamon Iberico also plays a key role in bringing out the best flavor and texture. For this reason, cutting, slicing and serving is given special importance in high-end restaurants and carving experts are hired to do the job.
Unlike regular ham, the meat needs to be thinly sliced and served at room temperature to get the best flavor out. This produces a ham with a powerful taste, enticing aroma, and melt-in-your-mouth texture.
Cuts from various parts of the leg offer distinct flavors and textures. For instance, the fattier slices near the hip have a rich, buttery flavor, while the drier cuts near the hoof have a sweet, nutty flavor. Hence, the better the pig's habitat, the higher the quality of the jamón produced.
Cured meats, like Iberico ham, are essential grabs for any meat lover! For the best place to order cured meats online, try something in Carnivore Club's vast selection.