Spanish Ham

Production of Spanish Ham

The black Iberian pig lives primarily in the south and southwest parts of Spain, including the provinces of Salamanca, Ciudad Real, Cáceres, Badajoz, Seville, Córdoba and Huelva.

Immediately after weaning, the piglets are fattened on barley and maize for several weeks. The pigs are then allowed to roam in pasture and oak groves to feed naturally on grass, herbs, acorns, and roots, until the slaughtering time approaches. At that point the diet may be strictly limited to acorns for the best quality jamón ibérico, or may be a mix of acorns and commercial feed for lesser qualities.

The hams from the slaughtered pigs are salted and left to begin drying for two weeks, after which they are rinsed and left to dry for another four to six weeks. The curing process then takes at least twelve months, although some producers cure their jamones ibéricos for up to 36 months.

In particular, the ibérico hams from the Jabugo in the Huelva province are known for their consistently high quality and both have their own Denominación de origen. Almost the entire town of Jabugo is devoted to the production of jamón ibérico; The town's main square is called La plaza del Jamón.

Additionally, the word "puro" (pure, referring to the breed) can be added to the previous qualities when both the father and mother of the slaughtered animal are of pure breed and duly registered on the pedigree books held by official breeders.

The term pata negra is also used to refer to jamón ibérico in general and may refer to any one of the above three types.

The term "pata negra" refers to the color of the pig's nails which are white in the traditional pork (Sus domesticus) but black for the Black Iberian Pig. While as a general rule a black nail should indicate an Iberico ham, there are cases of counterfeits with nails being manually painted.

Bellota jamones are prized both for their smooth texture and rich savory taste. A good ibérico ham has regular flecks of intramuscular fat. Because of the pig's diet of acorns, much of the jamón's fat is oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid that has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol.

The fat content is relatively high compared to jamón serrano, thus giving a rich taste.

Jamón ibérico, which only accounts for about 8% of Spain's cured-ham production, is very expensive and not widely available abroad.

The excellent Iberian pork products are obtained by means of a delicate, selective procedure comprising the following stages:

Production of Spanish Pata Negra JamónSlaughter and quartering
The carcass of the pig is cut into pieces and the week of the slaughter is branded onto the leg sections. This is done in authorised, extremely hygienic abattoirs. The legs are cut in the typically “serrano”, or mountain, fashion and then go into the airing chamber.

Salting chamber
Next the hams are piled one on top of another, separated by layers of salt, to a maximum height of eight hams. They are kept here for approximately one day per kilo of weight, at a temperature of between 1º and 5º C and with a humidity level of around 80-90%. This is a very important stage insofar that quality ham is not supposed to be over-salty. On the contrary, ideally it should taste sweet.

The hams are then washed to remove the remaining salt from their surface, and left for between 35 and 60 days at a temperature of between 3º and 6º C and with a humidity level of 80-90%.

Traditional drying process
Production of Spanish HamThe hams are air-dried in drying sheds. They are hung up in order gradually to reduce their humidity level. Temperature (between 15º and 30ºC) and ventilation are strictly regulated. The hams remain in these air-drying sheds in the Huelva meadows from six to nine months. They sweat in the summer heat and their fat spreads through the muscle fibres, creating a succulent, aromatic meat.


Maturing and Bouquet
Production of Spanish Pata Negra HamThe hams are then taken down into cellars to continue their slow maturing process (it is crucial to keep the temperature and the humidity constant). This is usually done in autumn. The hams stay in the cellars for between 6 and 18 months, depending on their weight, at temperatures between 15º and 20ºC and with a humidity level of 60-80%. It is during this stage that the fungi which appear on the outside of the hams begin to facilitate the aroma (bouquet) typical of Iberian cured ham. When it leaves the cellar, the ham is tested by means of a probe (called a cala ) which is stuck deep into the meat, pulled out and smelled. The aroma should be pleasant and strong. In the course of the curing process the ham will have lost 30 to 35% of its weight.

Ham produced by this method is of an incomparable quality, and has been appreciated by gourmets worldwide since Roman times.

Correct Identification
For correct identification, it should be noted that Iberian legs of ham are elongated and finish at the hoof. The meat may vary in colour from pink to a deeper red. It has a very pleasant smell, and far from tasting salty it has a somewhat sweet flavour. Its texture displays very few fibres and its fat is soft and tasty.

The hams are labeled according to the pigs' diet, with an acorn diet being most desirable:

  • The finest jamón ibérico is called jamón ibérico de bellota (acorn). This ham is from free-range pigs that roam oak forests (called la dehesa) along the border between Spain and Portugal, and eat only acorns during this last period. It is also known as Jamón Iberico de Montanera. The exercise and the diet has a significant impact on the flavor of the meat; the ham is cured for 36 months.
  • The next grade of jamón ibérico is called jamón ibérico de recebo. This ham is from pigs that are pastured and fed a combination of acorns and grain.
  • The third type of jamón ibérico is called jamón ibérico de cebo, or simply, jamón ibérico. This ham is from pigs that are fed only grain. The ham is cured for 24 months.
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