Since our days at the Farmer Markets with The Acorn we have been trying to explain what makes Iberico Ham so extraordinary and so different from Parma Ham. At our old website we had this article that I am bringing back again today.
Enjoy the reading!
Jamón ibérico is a type of jamón, a cured ham produced only in Spain. It is at least 75% Black Iberian Pig, also called the cerdo negro or black pig, the only breed of pig that naturally seeks and eats mainly acorns: according to Spain’s Denominación de Origen rules on food products jamón ibérico may be made from cross-bred pigs as long as they are at least 75% ibérico.
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. This is described in more detail below.
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 southern 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 pienso, or simply, jamón ibérico. This ham is from pigs that are fed only grain. The ham is cured for 24 months.
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.
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 comprised of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid that has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol.
Until recently, jamón ibérico was not available in the U.S. In 2005 the first producer in Spain was approved by the U.S.D.A. to export ibérico ham products to the U.S. The first jamóns ibéricos were released for sale in the United States in December, 2007, with the bellota hams due to follow in July 2008. Jamón ibérico, which only accounts for about 5% of Spain’s cured-ham production, is very expensive and not widely available abroad.
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 nine months, although some producers cure their jamones ibéricos for over two years.
The ibérico hams from the town of Guijuelo in the Salamanca province are renowned for their consistently high quality. Practically the entire town is devoted to the production of Jamón Ibérico and Iberico cured meats as “Lomo”, “Salchichon” and “Chorizo”.
Jamon Iberico in a Healthy Diet
From the dawn of civilization, man has been aware that food provides not only immediate sustenance for life, but also it has good properties for maintaining healthy life. Thus, in classic Greece meat was the main protein, and Hippocratic philosophers considered that “pork gave the body more strength than other meats”.
This idea was passed on to other Western cultures. It arose because the pig was the only animal domesticated for its meat, and in this sense people believed that the environment and the life situation of the animal were essential for the nutritional quality of the pork.
This concept is still accepted today. Nowadays people are convinced that the system of handling, breeding and raising the pig directly influences the quality of its meat. For centuries people have known that the meat from animals grazing in the forests and fields and getting exercise in the open air, is more appetizing than meat from animals produced intensively in captivity. In sum, the animal’s well-being has direct repercussions on the taste of its meat.
The general dietetic concept of meat, and particularly pork, has remained practically the same from Greek and Roman times to the late nineteenth century – a time when cook books and home economics manuals began to consider meat in a modern context. In the middle of the nineteenth century, these authors had introduced criteria that evaluated the quality of meat, the proportion that is fat, and its nutritional value. This nutritional emphasis continued for a good portion of the 20th century.
However, during the second half of the 20th century, new factors came to the forefront. In terms of cardiovascular health, there is a greater appreciation of cultural factors, the Mediterranean diet, and specifically the meat of the Iberian pigs. The fact that in today’s world some 40.5% of deaths are due to heart disease has increased interest in this area. It can be said that cardiopathology increases in an opulent society.
With this piqued interest in diets that lead to healthy hearts, pork from Iberian pigs, and therefore Jamón Ibérico, has attracted great interest because of a unique factor in its composition that makes it quite different from ordinary white pork.
The important factor of all ham, whether produced from white or Iberian pigs, is its intramuscular fat, which is different to the one on the surface. Intramuscular fat directly influences the texture, palate and aroma of the ham.
This fat located among the muscle fibers in jamón ibérico is of bromatologic, culinary and gastronomic importance and contributes to the juiciness of the meat and its digestibility, both in the mouth and in the stomach, when consumed.
Jamón Ibérico contains a high percentage of oleic acid (which is why it is sometimes called “a four-legged olive tree”) and, in contrast, the levels of saturated fatty acids are low. It is just the opposite of white pork. Jamón´s intramuscular fat has a low percentage of saturated fat and cholesterol, and this is why it is a food that can and must be present in heart healthy diets.
Regarding other Iberian pig products, such as chorizo, salchichón, lomo (loin) and paleta (shoulder) they all have the same properties as does the jamón. Therefore, the Iberian pig, due to (a) its zootechnical behavior, living in the free-range Spanish pastures, (b) its unique genetics of being an animal with a high percentage of non-saturated fatty acids and (c) the method used to cure its products, particularly jamón, makes it a food that enjoys very favorable dietetic qualities.