Since I have been in spain I have developed a taste for its cured hams without knowledge of the different qualities and prices. As the average Spaniard eats nearly 5 kilos of ham per year, and 40 million hams are cured every year, I thought that a little research was called for.
What is exactly Jamón Ibérico? What is different about Jamón de Bellota? And what is Jamón de Pata Negra? What are the different regions which as with wines are protected names, the so called "denominaciones".
Let’s first take a look at the pig it all begins with - the so called Cerdo Ibérico (Iberian pig) is also called Pata Negra, because of its distinguishing grey colour, as opposed to “white pigs”. A white pig can be one of several different breeds, such as Duroc, Landrace, Large White and Jersey, the Iberian pig is a breed on it own, although one of its four grandfathers may be a Duroc or Jersey. Currently, 90% of the Spanish ham production comes from white pigs and only 10% from Iberian pig. Another difference is that the Iberian pigs weighs less and their meat has a refined taste, although much depends on what they eat.
The most influential factor on the final quality of the ham comes from what the pig has been eating. The best hams come from Iberian pigs that have been eating acorns (Bellota) all their lives. From October until January / February these pigs are left to roam the ‘Dehesa’, the countryside where they live on acorns. This period is called “montanera” after which the pigs are ready for slaughter.
Following their slaughter, the hams are immersed in nitrified salts to help dry and preserve them. The duration of this immersion depends on the ham’s weight: 1-2 days for each kilo, which usually works out to be 9-14 days. Then the salt is washed off and the hams are hung to dry for 30-45 days, at a temperature between 8º-10ºC and a relative humidity of 80%. This period is called “asentamiento”, a slow process during which the ham loses water and the salt gets absorbed and spread uniformly through all parts of the ham.
During the following 6 to 15 months, the curing process really starts and the ham changes to a deep red colour and gains the typical aromas of the cured meat. During the curing process, the temperature needs to be between one and five degrees with very low humidity. In earlier days, hams were taking to the mountains in order to meet the right temperature and humidity. The village of Trevelez in the Alpujarras are the living example of this tradition where you can visit the “secaderos” – dry houses. The last 3-4 weeks of this process is called “maduracion”: hams are exposed to temperatures of around 30º with a relative humidity of 60%. This way, the fats get well spread into the muscle fibres of the ham.
Most of the hams lose 40% of their original weight during these processes and are ready for sale. Only the best hams stay between 7-13 months more in “bodegas” for an additional curation, called “añejado”, during which the ham gains even more taste. Competing countries like France or Italy don’t apply this “añejado” process and this is why these hams are recognized by experts to be world’s best.
These processes will differ depending on the weight of the ham and also of the interpretations, experience and secrets of each ham-maker. Now let’s take a look at the different ham you may encounter in Spain:
Jamón Serrano / Jamón Curado / Jamón Reserva / Jamón Extra
This is just the “ordinary cured ham” from white pigs, fed with a mixed diet of authorized commercial compound feed. The words Serrano, Curado, Reserva, Extra are just marketing terms and don’t tell us anything about the time of curing. Quality can differ strongly between different brands and is not easy to recognize. Price is usually a good indication.
Jamón Ibérico / Jamón de Pata Negra
Only ham from the Iberian pig is allowed to be called Jamón Ibérico. If no mention is made of bellota, then take for granted that the pig was fed with authorized commercial compound feed and only if you’re lucky will acorns have been part of their diet. However, its taste is more refined than an ordinary Jamón Serrano.
Jamón Iberico de Recebo
Ham from the Iberian pig which has been fed with acorns and authorized compound feed during the last months of feeding. This ham is a good compromise for those who don’t want to spent too much money on a ham but still want to experience its excellent taste.
h3> Jamón Iberico de Bellota / Jamón Iberico de Montanera
Iberian ham from pigs that have been fed exclusively with acorns and herbs. This is the most refined ham available! Difference in quality depend now on the time of curation and the “know-how” of its producer.
While ham is the hind leg of the pig, paletilla is the front leg. In other words… it’s not correct to say ham to a paletilla. Nevertheless, a paletilla can have an excellent taste and the same processes of ham-making apply. The difference? A paletilla is smaller and has more fat, therefore it’s cheaper. If you can’t afford a Jamón Iberico de Bellota, ask for a Paletilla Iberica de Bellota!
Denominación de Origen
Only five regions are awarded the “Denominación de Origen”:
- Jamón de la Dehesa de Extremadura
- Jamón de Huelva (including the famous Jabugo ham)
- Jamón de Teruel
- Jamón de Guijuelo
- Jamón de Trevélez
The “Denominación de Origin” is certainly a guarantee of quality, but it doesn’t mean you’ll automatically get a Bellota ham, so you’ll still have to watch the label. Neither does it mean you won’t get a good quality ham from a region without Denominación. The Valle de los Pedroches (north from Córdoba) for instance produces excellent Bellota hams for less money!
Now that you bought your ham or paletilla, it’s time to learn how to cut the ham. Ham cutting is both an art and a profession! Every year, competitions are held between the best ham-cutters of Spain. The essence is to cut paper-thin slices for the best taste. Cut just before eating, not hours… you won’t able to resist waiting in any case!