What makes the Iberian pig so special?
What is Iberian ham? First we have to understand where the ham comes from. It comes from the Iberian pig, 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 must be intermingled 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 are used to make 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 best pig is 100% Iberian pig, fed exclusively on acorns in the Iberian peninsula.
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.
It must be salted for a few days to extract all the liquid, then washed out. 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 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. 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.
Denominations of Origin (D.O.) of Iberian ham in Spain
There are 5 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 be grown in other areas as long as they are brought to these 4 areas to be cured to receive the D.O.
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 found 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 where Iberian ham is cured, allowing less salt to be used and the jamones to be cured 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.
It is in the Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche that the Iberian ham production area is located. 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 curing and maturation process is only performed in 31 municipalities of the La Sierra county, of which Jabugo is the most notable.
There should be only the faintest hint of saltiness in this ham.
Since 2017 D.O. Jabugo has been separated from D.O. Huelva. The region where the ham is dried is over 600m over sea level. 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. In Jabugo there is also a native strain known as “Manchado de 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.
The Sierra de Huelva 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.
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. Its holm oaks, cork oaks and pastures provide a diet for many of the Iberian pigs that are slaughtered and cured in other parts of the country, 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 is also known for its low salt content, resulting from optimum climate conditions that make the salting period shorter than in other parts of Spain.
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.
Types/Labels of Iberian ham
Iberian breed pigs are the only animals of this species in which stored fat is redistributed thoughout 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 telling you that the pig is acorn-fed, and from a crossbreed pig. A green one is used for “cebo” Iberian ham, i.e. hams that come from crossbreed Iberian pigs fed on cereals and raised on open range. The White label is used to determine 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.
Are you travelling to Cadiz? Would like to learn more about Iberian ham and other local food products like bluefin tuna, bull’s meat and Sherry? Join our small group tour in our Sherry & Tapas tour , or other tours. You will be able to taste the differences between the different sherries, learn how to do a professional wine tasting and how to pair wine with food. Come and join Explore la Tierra in Vejer de la Frontera, Cadiz, Spain!