As it melted in my mouth, I melted in my chair. With my first bite of Jamon Iberico de Bellota (with accents, it’s Jamón Ibérico de Bellota) only a few years ago, it fell squarely on top of the leader board as my favorite Spanish cured meat. The meat is dark red marbled with veins of fat and a sweet, nutty flavor with complimentary salinity. With that said, it’s pricey so I’m not able to indulge often. It’s a bit more affordable in Spain as a ‘tapa’ and from where it hails. On a visit to Spain last year, I paired it with Sherry, my other favorite Spanish love to the delight of my taste buds. The best pairing with local fair is almost always local wine.
What is Jamon Iberico de Bellota?
The name, Jamon Iberico de Bellota means Iberian ham of acorn. The meat is obtained from the hind leg of the black pigs that roam the Iberian Peninsula of Portugal and Spain and feed on acorns in the fall prior to slaughter. Jamon Iberico is often referred to as ‘pata negra’ (black hoof) as the hoof remains on the leg during the curing process.
Jamon Iberico pigs are large, black hogs with slender legs. In contrast to Serrano pigs, Iberian pigs have black hoofs and are fatter with veins of fat running through the muscle. Their relatively high fat content gives the meat a smooth texture and rich, savory taste.
The Dehesas and Its Acorns
The towns and villages in South and Central Spain and South Portugal have maintained pastures known as ‘dehesas’ for over two thousand years covering some 7.4 million acres (one acre = .404686 hectare). These pastures are peppered with holm or in Spanish, ‘encina’ oak and other trees, shrubs and cattle. They are likened to agro-silvo-pastoral systems (ASPS), considered multifunctional models of production and conservation.
The Encina oak trees of the dehesas give acorns a rich, creamy texture. During the fall and winter, when the acorns fall from the trees, the pigs roam the pastures to fatten up. The Iberian pigs begin their time on the dehesa at 10 months weighing in at around 200 pounds. After the three-to-four month period of foraging for acorns, herbs and grass, they will double in weight. This period is known as the ‘montanera’, which produces a marbled fat packed with natural antioxidants, a key ingredient for extended curing of the ham.
The Curing Process
Throughout each phase of the process both temperature and relative humidity are controlled. The fat of the pigs and the antioxidants of their diets allow for this very long curing process.
- Depending on weight, hams are covered with sea salt to begin drying for one to two weeks.
- The hams are then rinsed to remove salt crystals from the surface and dry for another four to six weeks. During this period, the salt penetrates the ham uniformly, enhancing dehydration and conservation. This process gives hams a significantly denser consistency. The salt prevents bacteria from taking hold as massive chemical changes occur.
- Hams are then hung in a ‘secadero’ or drying area for six to nine months where they begin to sweat fat. In fact, the hams will loose nearly half of their weight as they sweat it off. The open windows expose them to mountain air impacting the flavor and aromas as changes occur in the protein.
- Next, the hams are hung in ‘bodegas’ or cellars for at least six and up to a maximum of 30 months to mature. Entering the second winter, the meat becomes dryer, and cools off. Iberico hams can uniquely cycle through two or three times resulting in a build up of complex, volatile molecules. Like wine, these molecules translate into a bouquet of flavors. As well, the curing process and antioxidants of the acorns turn the saturated fats into healthy mono-unsaturated fats high in oleic acid. The only fat higher in oleic acid is olive oil.
Protected Designation of Origin
Similar to wine, cheese and other products, the best Iberian pigs are protected under European law with a Regulatory Board and a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status. This regulated classification system governs quality (production, aging and final quality), geographic origin and labeling.
Production, aging, quality, geographic origin:
- The pigs must be purebred Iberian, or a cross including at least 75% Iberian bloodstock.
- The entry weight of the pigs released to the dehesa must be between 80 and 105 kg (1 kg = 2.20 pounds).
- Regulating a maximum numbers of pigs per hectare based on acorn production (one hectare is 2.47 acres).
- Inspects facilities and processes of all farms and plants involved in ham production.
- If the term, ‘pata negra’ (black hoof) appears on the label, the ham must be pure bred. The seal will be black. It must be cured a minimum of 36 months. These are 100% Jamon Iberico de Bellota.
- A red label is for crossbreed pigs that fed on acorns during the final period. The percentage must be specified on the label. These are also called Jamon Iberico de Bellota.
- A green label is for Iberian pigs that fed on acorns and grain called Jamon Iberico de Campo.
- A white label is for Iberian pigs that fed on only grain. The ham is cured for 24 months. This ham is known as Jamon Iberico de Cebo.
- The word, puro, referring to the breed can appear on the label when both the father and mother are of pure breed and duly registered on the pedigree books held by official breeders.
- Images of acorns and dehesas on product labels are restricted to hams that qualify as bellota.
Your homework for next time you’re in Spain: a ‘tapeo’ (a tapas crawl) with a glass of sherry and a plate of jamon iberico de bellota. Class dismissed!