Spanish Food. Jamón ibérico. The World’s Greatest Ham.
“The pork of Spain has always been, and is, unequalled in flavour; the bacon is fat and flavoured, the sausages delicious, and the hams transcendentally superlative” (Richard Ford. Gatherings 139).
This opinion, written in 1846 by the famous English traveller Richard Ford, still holds true especially for ham. Now, you can buy ordinary boiled ham called jamón York (or dulce), or the better known cured ham, jamón serrano (like Italian prosciutto).
But the ham that really stands out is jamón ibérico. It’s more expensive than serrano ham, but don’t let the price put you off. It is truly a superior ham. Just ask for a couple of paper thin slices, and you are in for an exceptional mouth-watering taste experience.
The pig that produces this ham is the cerdo (pig) ibérico, a native brown-black breed that once roamed the entire peninsula. With a pedigree going back thousands of years, it was domesticated over time. As early as the 16th century, the cerdo ibérico was a prized product with tens of thousands changing hands on the day of San Andrés (St. Andrew: November 30), during the period the pigs have their final fattening.
The cerdo ibérico is a solid pig with slender legs tapering into distinctive black hooves, hence the name pata negra by which it is commonly known. (The black hooves are a useful way to identify jamón ibérico from the more common serrano ham hanging in stores).
The cerdo ibérico can be seen grazing on wild grass, snuffling roots and foraging for acorns (bellotas), herbs and the occasional olive in the dehesas of Western Spain, a combination of pasture and light forests of mainly holm oak and cork trees.
The dehesas cover large tracts of western Spain –Extremadura, Western Andalusia, Western Castile-Leon– and eastern Portugal. The dry climate places a natural limit on the number of trees the dehesas can comfortably support, usually no more than 15 per acre (35 per hectare). The trees serve many purposes, providing firewood, cork, shade for livestock against the searing heat of summer, and shelter and food for animals and migratory birds. During the spring and summer, cattle and sheep share the pasture.
The dehesas have been threatened by intensive farming and even development. However, Spanish conservation groups have become very active in working to protect this unique ecosystem. January 2023: Now, serious drought conditions can be added to the list of threats. See the Guardian newspaper: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/jan/30/spains-prized-jamon-iberico-under-threat-from-climate-crisis
Equally, if not more important, jamón ibérico has become much sought-after, so that rearing the cerdo ibérico is now a profitable business. In addition, the development of farming collectives has improved marketing, and the creation of 4 denominaciones de origen (designation of origin -DO-, similar to the designations for Spanish wines) is a guarantee of quality.
These DO regions are centred around the towns of Guijüelo in the province of Salamanca (Castile-León), Jerez de los Caballeros, Fregenal de la Sierra, Oliva de la Frontera, Higuera la Real and Montánchez in Extremadura, Jabugo in Western Andalusia and the Valle de los Pedroches in the province of Córdoba (Andalusia). All are in mountainous areas guaranteeing plenty of fresh air which is vital for the drying and curing process. Each region claims to produce the best hams, with Jabugo and Guijüelo perhaps the front runners.
A Pig’s Life!
The pigs lead an active life roaming free-range under the trees.
The summer heat and arid conditions can be hard and they are sometimes fed grain. The real fattening period comes in the fall and choices are made. The “lucky” pigs will remain in the dehesa and feed on the acorns dropping from the oaks (sometimes men with long poles “encourage” the acorns to fall!).
These pigs produce the highest quality Iberian ham, the highly coveted jamón ibérico de bellota, a luxury ham demanding luxury prices. For 3 to 4 months, during a period known as the montanera, the pigs can devour up to 10 kilos per day (22 pounds), and double their weight. To help reach the regulatory DO weight of 160 kilos (353 pounds) and earn the title of jamón ibérico de bellota, the number of pigs per hectare is limited to no more than two. By this time, they are between 14 and 18 months old.
Preparing the Ham.
Strict standards are maintained for the slaughter (matanza or sacrificio) and preparation of the ham. The prized legs are chilled and allowed to firm overnight before curing with a layer of sea salt for roughly 14 days, depending on the weight. They are then washed and hung to dry out in special secaderos (drying sheds) with adjustable flaps to allow air circulation.
As the weather warms in spring, the fatty hams start to sweat and lose up to a third of their weight. Next they are transferred to dark cellars for the final stage of maturing for up to 14 months. At this time, they also develop a somewhat unappealing-looking, fine coating of fungus, technically known as penicillium roquefortis.
The total time for curing and maturation is at least 1 year for lower grade hams and up to 4 for the bellota hams. A final check/inspection on the quality is done by a calador (tester) before the ham is released.
The calador inserts a fine, pointed beef-bone probe in the ham, sniffs it very carefully, covers it with a little fat and determines whether its quality is satisfactory. By this time, the hams weigh between approximately 6 to 8 kilos (13 and 18 pounds).
For the bellota hams, the result of this long and costly process is a deep red meat marbled with fine golden veins of fat. The fat is rich in oleic acid from the acorns, which gives the meat a sweet, nutty flavour and a creamy consistency. Oleic acid is the same mono-unsaturated acid found in olives, making the bellota ham a healthier alternative to regular hams. Locals sometimes refer to their pigs as “olives with legs.”
Cutting the ham.
There is an art to slicing all ibérico hams. To balance the awkward shaped leg, a special support made of wood and metal, called a jamonera, is used.
The ham is clamped at roughly 45 degrees, with the black hoof uppermost. First the rind is removed, leaving a good amount of fat on the outside to prevent the meat drying up. The carver then takes a long, narrow and flexible knife and cuts paper-thin slices of the marbled ham following the grain of the meat. Some more fat may be trimmed off the slices and used for cooking
A few slices of the ham go a long way, and if you feel you have to have something to accompany it, a piece of bread is enough. To appreciate its complex flavor, you should eat the ham at room temperature and on a warm plate. The fat dissolves in your mouth releasing its sweet nuttiness. The taste is unique.
The rest of the cerdo ibérico is also highly valued especially the pork loins and sausages (chorizos, salchichones (salami type sausages, made of finely chopped pork, bacon fat and white peppercorns, morcillas (blood sausages) and morcones (a speciality from Extremadura, made of lean pork marinated with paprika and garlic.
Aug. 24, 2023: A very interesting twist and challenge to a long-standing tradition:
“Carving legs of Iberian ham in bars, restaurants and at events has traditionally been a man’s job. Now a new generation of women is taking their place at the slicing table.“ BBC web page, December 14, 2022. For more on the impact of women at the slicing table, read the fascinating article in https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20221213-the-women-ham-carvers-of-spain.
Classification of Hams.
New regulations introduced in January 2014 have tightened what had become a confusing and suspiciously fraudulent practice of misrepresentation and mislabeling. Not all hams marketed as pure ibérico (i.e. de bellota) were certified as such so that customers could not be guaranteed the quality of the ham they were buying. For example, there was more ham labelled de bellota than the number of acorn-fed pigs being reared. Many producers were also cross-breeding Iberian pigs with other varieties (Duroc especially) because pure bred Iberian pigs have small litters and produce less meat per head. Also, labels on hams showing pigs contentedly snuffling acorns did not necessarily mean that that particular ham was from an acorn-fed pig.
As of January 2014, there are four general colour-coded classifications:
1. Black label: Jamón ibérico puro de bellota: from pure-bred, free-range ibérico pigs who have grazed only on acorns during the montanera period, October through February.
2. Red label: Jamón de bellota: from pigs that are cross-bred and allowed to graze on acorns. The pigs in this classification must be 75% pure.
3. Green label: Jamón ibérico de cebo de campo: from pigs that are 50% pure and have grazed in the dehesas but not on acorns. They are also fed fodder/grain.
4. White label: from 50% pure ibérico pigs kept in pens and fed grain only.
Although the classification comes into effect immediately, it applies only to newly produced hams. Hams already in the market follow the old labeling system. It could take up to three years for the new system to be completely implemented because of the length of time it takes for the best hams to cure. The use of labels with pictures of pigs grazing on acorns will only be allowed on hams produced by pigs that actually did eat acorns. Furthermore, the term pata negra may only refer to pure bred, acorn-fed ibérico pigs.
As an aside, Ford has a wonderful and somewhat comical description of the pigs as they head out from their villages on their daily trip to the dehesas: When the acorns are ripe and fall from the trees, the greedy animals are turned out in legions from the villages, which more correctly may be termed coalition of pigsties. They return from the woods at night of their own accord … On entering the hamlet, all set off at full gallop, like a legion possessed with devils, in a handicap for home, into which each pig turns, never making a mistake. We have more than once been caught in one of these pig-deluges, and nearly carried away horse and all… In his own home, each truant is welcomed like a prodigal son or a domestic father. These pigs are pets of the peasants; they are brought up with their children, and partake … in the domestic discomfort of their cabins; they are universally respected … [and] lead the happy life of former Toledan dignitaries, with the additional advantage of becoming more valuable when dead. Ford, 140-41.
Ford, Richard Gatherings from Spain London 1970 (first published in 1847).
Roden, Claudia The Food of Spain New York 2011.
Torres, Marimar The Spanish Table: The Cuisines and Wines of Spain New York 1986.
Trutter, Marion ed. Culinaria Spain Cologne 1999.
Image of jamonera by Manolo Fernández: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jamonera
First image: cerdos ibéricos close up by http://ca.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gastronomia_d%27Extremadura#mediaviewer/Fitxer:Porc_ib%C3%A9rique_Cerdo_ib%C3%A9rico.JPG :
Image of jamón de bellota by Pravdaverita: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jam%C3%B3n_ib%C3%A9rico#mediaviewer/File:Jamón_Bellota_2007_BEHER_Bernardo_Hernandez_Guijuelo_Salamanca..JPG
Excellent article and super photos by Max Falkowitz http://www.seriouseats.com/2014/03/inside-the-secret-world-of-super-premium-spanish-jamón-ibérico.html?ref=sidebar If you land on seriouseats.com home page, enter jamón iberico under “Try Searching.”
August 19, 2018. There’s an interesting article in The Guardian related to pig population in Spain (it has now surpassed human population: approx.50 million to 46.5 million). The article also addresses fraudulent practices and the situation currently in Spain. See: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/19/fears-environment-spain-pigs-outnumber-humans-pork-industry
March 26, 2019. For a fascinating commentary, photos and two short videos on a very rare breed of pig, Manchado de Jabugo –spotted Jabugo– that produces the world’s most expensive ham ($4,614US!!! a leg), go to