Is Jamón Ibérico de Bellota Really The Best?
Jamón Ibérico de bellota is not cheap. To give an idea, a 7kg ham on the bone might set you back £370. However, if you follow this link you will find an interesting comparative test, showing that the cheapest ham in a selection of six (which included one de bellota, three de cebo, and two straightforward simple Jamón ibérico) scored the highest in terms of taste. In terms of texture, flavour, smell etc the de bellota was indistinguishable yet it can cost up to five times as much as the others.
The main difference is in the increased fat content (up to 34% as opposed to four of the other five which had between 20% and 29%) and the fact that it has no additives (although the additives in the other types are kept very low indeed).
I have to admit I don’t have a particularly sensitive sense of taste. Out of a selection of four I tried when I was in Madrid last week, I decided that the ham from Salamanca – a pure de bellota – had the least taste, and in the end plumped for a ham from Córdoba – technically outside the bellota area.
However, others do have sensitive palates. Whilst I love the punchy, smoky taste of a Jamón Ibérico one enterprising Extremaduran farmer has started curing beef instead of pork. The result, apparently, is something very similar, but milder, more delicate. To find out more, follow this link.
The production process of Jamón Ibérico
Most Spanish ham is produced in Extremadura, or other areas in the west of Spain on vast tracts of pasture, an ecosystem, known as the dehesa. The meat is unique in the world because there is unsaturated fat below the skin and in the muscles resulting from a diet of acorns (from the Holm oaks which cover the grazing) and local grasses and aromatic herbs. The pigs range freely over these pastures for the final three months of their life during the montanera, when the acorns fall between October 1 – January 1. To qualify as Jamón Ibérico de Bellota the pig must weigh a minimum of 160 Kg, and have achieved that by having eaten several kg of acorns on a daily basis. In order to ensure the animals get the required amount of acorns the grazing is limited to no more than two pigs per hectare. Sometimes the trees are beaten to encourage the acorns to fall.
The animal stock is either pure Iberian (‘negro’ or ‘retinto’) or 75% Iberian crossed with Duroc-Jersey. It’s cured for a minimum of eighteen months (more usually two years) or, in the case of the Jamón Ibérico de Bellota) for three.
Hams are not made from pigs less than 18 months old. To ensure that the meat doesn’t become tough the animals are slaughtered in local abattoirs in a stress-minimising manner.
The production process is highly controlled. Hams are branded with the week of the death of the animal and, following a night’s chilling to firm them up, placed in underground salting rooms, one on top of the other, separated by salt, to a maximum of eight hams high. They stay there for one day per kilo of ham. This stage of the process is key to the final flavour.
The hams are then washed of the salt, and hung so that gradually the water dries out of them. This part of the process typically takes six to nine months with the heat of the summer causing the hams to ‘sweat’ and the fat to distribute more evenly around the muscles. It is the oleic acid in the acorns (which is also present in olives) which gives the fat its special flavour (but see taste test, above).
To slow down the maturation process the hams are stored for up to four years in cellars where temperature and humidity are carefully controlled. In this phase a ‘bloom’ grows on the surface of the hams which contributes to the final flavour. The shorter the maturation period, the lighter the colour, and the cheaper the ham.
By the time the ham is ready to eat it will have lost up to 35% of its initial weight. Before it can be sold it is checked again by inspectors who insert a sharpened beef bone and examine the quality of the ham by smell.
There is a final stage which is also very important, and that is the way that the ham is cut. It needs a super-sharp knife and it should be cut so thin as to be nearly transparent.
Spanish ham of all types need to be eaten at room temperature – not straight out of the fridge. For the English version of this type of cured ham, go to this interview with Lee Morton, where he describes how he set up a pioneering charcuterie in the UK.
There are a number of different Spanish ham types:
1. Jamón ibérico (made from black-hooved pigs – ‘pata negra’)
Has a denomination of origin (DO) which covers four regions:
- Salamanca and Guijuelo (where the Joselito ham comes from)
- The province of Huelva including the town of Jabugo
- Valle de los Pedroches
- Extremadura, bordering with Andalucia
Jamón ibérico may include ham which has failed the requirements for Jamón ibérico de bellota
2. Jamón ibérico de bellota
Maturation period of at least three years. Fed on acorns during the montanera (period of the acorn harvest, see above).
A well-known make is Montaraz
3. Jamón ibérico de cebo
Pigs fed on cereal, not free range
Well-known makes are Novidul, Ibérico Sierra de Azuaga and Iglesias
4.Jamón ibérico cebo de campo
Pigs fed on cereal, free range
5. Jamón ibérico de recebo
Fed on acorns during the monanera, but thereafter for a period fed on cereal. Matured for a minimum of three years
And in addition there is:
6. Jamón serrano
Produced in Eastern Spain from white pigs. Particularly good are the hams from:
- Teruel – ham from this mountainous province also has a DO status. Minimum maturation period of 14 months at a minimum height of 800m above sea level. The breeding rules are that the sows must be Landrace or Large White, and the boars, Duroc. These hams are low cholesterol hams (high in unsaturated fat, low in saturated). Its particular flavour is said to derive from the very dry climate.
- Trévelez.- a sweet ham
Where to get jamón in London
The English gauntlet
Finally – in the same way that the English have thrown down the gauntlet to the French in terms of champagne, you can now sample chorizo, salami, ham and coppa made from pigs foraging for acorns and blackberry roots in the Wyre Forest in Worcestershire. Go to Forest Pig for a sample. As you will see from the illustration below, the idea of feeding pigs on acorns is not limited to Spain or recent history. It shows acorns being harvested to feed swine and comes from Queen Mary’s psalter, a collection of beautifully executed drawings, mostly executed by one artist, working in England in the early fourteenth century.