What makes the Iberian pig so special?
What is Iberian ham? First we have to understand where the ham comes from. The Iberian pig originated from a rare endemic breed of Portugal and Spain, which originated from the Mediterranean wild boar. They can be either acorn fed in the wild or grain fed.
Most Iberian pigs are easy to recognize, they have black hoofs, are smaller and have a darker colour than the other typical pig breeds that you find in Spain. However, some Iberian pigs are not black, while other non-Iberian breeds, like the Mangalica pig, may have black hoofs. One of the best ways to differentiate it is when you cut the ham, the meat intermingles with the fat, creating that glossy marbling fat from the Iberian ham. Other breeds that you can find in Spain are Duroc, Pietrain, and Landrace. These produces Serrano ham but not Iberian ham. Iberian ham has to come from a pig which has at least a 50% Iberian ham DNA.
Similar to the bluefin tuna the best ones are exploited in a sustainable way. In Spain we eat everything of the pig, as well as of the tuna.
The most expensive Iberian ham is 100% Iberian pig, fed exclusively on acorns, Grass, mushrooms in the Iberian peninsula. However, it does not have to be your favourite, some people from my Iberian ham tours prefered 50-75% Iberian pig and fed exclusively on acorns. It all depends on your taste.
Later in the blog I will talk about the different areas where Iberian ham is cured and you can find a link to buy them if you are interested.
Where does the Iberian ham comes from?
To summarize, you only need salt, air and time. Curing Iberian ham will depend a lot on the weight of the piece.
To extract all the liquid in the ham, the factory covers the Iberian ham with salt, after several days the salt is washed out. The amount of days in the salt will depend on the weight of the piece. Second step is to let it sit until the salt stops working, and then you hang it down to let it dry and mature for about 6 to 9 months. In this step the biochemical processes starts helping to develop new aromas and tastes. The third and last step is when you age the ham in a cellar. Here the microbial organisms and their biochemical processes finish developing the new aromas and tastes. This process can last for an additional 6 months up to 30 months!
Ham throughout history?
Estrabón, a Greek historian of 1 B.C. wrote about an Iberian tribe in the north of Spain, the Occidental Pyrenees, who made ham similarly to the Cantabrian and Sardinia people, who were quite famous for it. So we know that we have been producing ham even before that time. They have even found a 2000 year old fossilized ham in Tarragona, Spain.
Romans had specialist cooks that focused on ham and other dried cured meats (embutidos), becoming very famous for those hams that came from Pamplona. Only the high class were able to try this ham. After the Romans left and the Visigoths took over, the convents and churches took over the role of making ham.
It was during the reconquest in the 13th century when the Iberian ham became similar to what we have now. Pigs were left semi-wild, in closeness to the Mediterranean forest, with Holm Oak and Cork Oak trees. They started placing more importance on the breed, by looking at the colour, size and shape of the legs.
During the medieval times it was the main type of meat Spaniards would eat. Even now, Spaniards are the first producer and consumer of ham in the world, eating twice as much as the second country, Italy. We produce 55 millions hams and front legs per year. In fact in 2017, there were more pigs (many of which were piglets) slaughtered than Spaniards living in Spain.
Types/Labels of Iberian ham
Iberian hog is the only animal of this species which stores fat thoughout the muscles of the body, infiltrating the muscle fibers. When the pig has consumed a diet with a high acorn content this fat is of superior quality, giving the flesh its characteristic texture, aroma and flavour.
The labels in each D.O. are slightly different, except for the black label. Since 2014 the term “Pata Negra” (black hoof) may only appear on labels if the ham in question comes from a pure-bred Iberian pig, and not from one that has been cross bred.
For the rest of the labels we can say that if you see a red label, it is acorn-fed, and from a crossbreed pig Iberian pig. A green one means cebo Iberico ham, i.e. hams that come from crossbreed Iberian pigs fed on cereals and raised on open range. The White label determines that the pig is at least 50% Iberian pig, and that it has been fed on cereals only and not raised outside.
If you would like to know more about it, we would recommend you to keep reading this link.
Denominations of Origin (D.O.) of Iberian ham in Spain
There are 4 D.O. Iberian ham here in Spain. What this means is that there are only 4 regions in Spain where Iberian ham can be dried, each providing a different quality. Huelva region has two D.O. areas. The pigs can grow in other areas but the curing process of the pork meat cannot.
For example, this happens with lots of pigs from Extremadura, which are taken to Salamanca or Córdoba. Or pigs from Cádiz are taken to Huelva.
Jabugo ham provides the most intense flavour and longest-lasting aftertaste of all. Guijuelo ham, on the other hand, usually has the most delicate flavour, while ham from Extremadura and Los Pedroches are of intermediate strength.
Located within Salamanca province. It has a microclimate different than the rest which helps to produce a different type of ham. Salamanca is on a plateau over 1000m above sea level, which makes the weather colder and drier. Pigs can come from different parts of Spain like Salamanca, Extremadura, Cordoba, Huelva, Seville and Castile La Mancha.
Guijuelo ham stands out from the others on account of its sweet and delicate flavour. It is the coldest of all the regions, allowing less salt and the jamones cure for a longer period. It does not leave an aftertaste on the palate or in the throat as, Jabugo ham does, but it does offer an interesting aromatic complexity.
Click the next link to buy a red label front leg Iberian ham from D.O. Guijuelo.
Since 2017 D.O. Huelva is now called D.O. Jabugo. The region is over 600m over sea level and here is where the ham dries. It is at the northern part of the province of Huelva (Andalusia, Spain) on the border with Badajoz.
Pigs here are either pure Iberian breed (black and “retinto”) or Duroc-Jersey crosses with 75% Iberian blood. “Manchado de Jabugo” is also a native Iberian pig strain in Jabugo. Its flesh is red, and its fat is very soft and grayish-yellow in colour. They are notable for the quantity of fat marbling their flesh, giving them a delectable texture.
It is in the Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche that the Iberian ham production area is located. It is warmer and more humid than the region of Guijuelo (Salamanca), and this means that a little more salt is required to prepare the ham. The ham is fragrant and delectable, with a delicate aroma. Iberian breed pigs come from different “dehesas” in Andalusia (Cordoba, Huelva, Seville, Cadiz and Málaga) and Extremadura (Caceres and Badajoz), but the jamon iberico curing and maturation process is only performed in 31 municipalities around Jabugo within La Sierra county.
There should be only the faintest hint of saltiness in this ham.
Click the next link to buy a the famous “5J” black label front leg Iberian ham from D.O. Jabugo.
Extremadura, in southwestern Spain, is the region with the largest expanse of open range in Europe. It has the two provinces in Spain with the most Managed Mediterranean forest (Dehesa) in Spain, first Badajoz, and then Cáceres. Both of them cover almost 60% of the Mediterranean forest in Spain, and around 25% of the world’s. This habitat is where Iberian pigs are at their best. Holm oaks, cork oaks and pastures provide a diet for many of the Iberian pig. In other parts of the country they can slaughter and cure the pigs from other regions, such as Salamanca or Huelva, where this type of woodland is less common.
The deep red colour that appears on cutting is typical of free-range animals of advanced age (18 months). Low melting point of the marbling fat typical of acorn-fed pigs, and the intense, persistent aroma and flavour come from long ageing. Dehesa de Extremadura ham has usually low salt content, resulting from optimum climate conditions that make the salting period shorter than in other parts of Spain.
Click the next link to buy a white label front leg Iberian ham from D.O. Extremadura.
This D.O is located in the Pedroches valle in Cordoba, Spain and is very slightly salty or sweet. It has a pleasant characteristic aroma. The fat is glossy and white with pinkish or yellowish tinges and it is aromatic, with a pleasing taste.
Click the next link to buy a white label front leg Iberian ham from D.O. Los Pedroches.
Private full day tours through Cadiz province and Andalusia
If you are looking for Andalusian culinary food, cultural and Sherry wine experiences through Andalusia (like Iberian ham tour), then keep reading. I will now take advantage to show off to you the great food tours throughout Cadiz province and Andalusia that we do. Officially, Vejer de la Frontera is one of the most beautiful villages of Spain in Cadiz, you should come and meet us!
Cultural and culinary food tours
We do an Iberian ham tour from Seville and Cadiz, You will enjoy a tour visiting the Mediterranean forest and the museum to learn the traditional methods for curing meat products, and then the current curing process of chorizos, loins and Iberian ham. At the end we will have an extensive tasting of a wide variety of cured meats. If you decide to do the full day tour we will head to the local caves where we will be astounded by the beauty and the size of it, a total of 2130 subterranean meters divided in three levels. You will visit 2 levels in a circular route of around 1km.
If you are in Cadiz and you are interested in learning about the Almadraba and visit it in a private boat ride, go to the local food market and finally enjoy an extensive tasting then join us in our Bluefin tuna tour. You will learn the history of Bluefin tuna in the area since Phoenician times. You will go in a private boat ride to visit the Almadraba (if you are lucky it may be active); visit a local food market; and taste different parts of bluefin tuna in all ways, salt-dried, grilled, raw.
Our latest addition is our become an artisan for one day tour, learn about local traditions. Make your own cheese and your own leather souvenir in Ubrique and enjoy its great history and panoramic views. This white village is famous worldwide for its importance for the international leather companies.
Sherry wine tours
Would you like to learn more about Sherry wine and immerse yourself in the local culture and traditions? If you want to learn and experience it with the company of a local guide and turn your visit to Cadiz into an exciting culinary adventure, book with us. Sherry wine love is very contagious, surely you will also become one!
If you have your own transport we can accompany you while learning about Sherry. Enjoy the best Sherry wine bodega tours, local culture and traditions and the local gastronomy. In case you do not have a car we can arrange transport, restaurant and the rest of your trip for you.
If you would like to learn all about Jerez-Sherry-Xeres D.O. then join us for our Ultimate Sherry wine Tasting tour. We can design a private tour just for you and your family.
If you are staying within Cadiz province we can organize a private Sherry wine tasting with local gourmet tapas for your group. We will go to your place and do a Sherry wine or Andalusian wine tasting for you privately. We can focus on premium Sherries; VORS and premium Sherries; or Andalusian wines in case you do not like Sherry wine.
If you are looking for what gourmet food of Andalusia, traditional and Sherry experiences in Cadiz, then keep reading. I will now take advantage to show off to you the great food tours in Vejer de la Frontera and throughout Cadiz province that we do.