Wafer-thin slices of this cured pork glisten when they’re fanned out on a plate, the meat has a sweet, nutty flavour and the marbling means it almost melts when eaten. A slice may be gone in seconds but there’s years of production behind this truly artisan food…
What is jamón ibérico?
Quite literally, jamón ibérico translates from Spanish as Iberian ham – that is ham made from black Iberian pigs. It’s one of the finest hams in the world and slivers of the cured meat (usually from the leg) have a generous marbling of fat and a deep red colour, as a result of rearing the pigs free-range and their diet.
While you can use it in dishes, it’s best enjoyed simply on its own. Or preferably with a glass of wine…
Black label jamón ibérico de bellota is the proper stuff. It means that the ham is from 100% Iberian pigs which have been raised free-range, with a minimum of 0.75 hectares per animal and fed on an acorn diet during the montanera (the acorn season from September to March).
Acorns (the ‘bellota’) are one of the essential components to the ham’s rich flavour. Some brands like Montaraz, based in Salamanca, go a step further, allowing pigs a minimum of two hectares plus access to graze on more than 7kg (15.4lbs) of acorns a day, during the montanera.
Production covers four regions in southwestern Spain where there are vast expanses of dehesa – a rolling landscape of grassy meadows and oak trees – in which the pigs roam. They are Salamanca and the town of Guijuelo; Huelva and the town of Jabugo; Les Pedroches; and Extremadura.
Jamón ibérico health benefits
There’s a reason why Iberian pigs are called olive trees with legs. Jamón ibérico de bellota is extremely rich in oleic acid, a healthy monosaturated omega-9 fatty acid, thanks to the acorns the pigs eat. In fact, only olive oil has a higher oleic acid content.
It’s also high in vitamin E, copper, calcium, iron, zinc and selenium among other vitamins and minerals.
The ibérico pigs
Native Iberian pigs, or pata negra as they’re also known, are instantly recognisable with their long, skinny legs, black-grey hide, long pronounced snouts, big floppy ears and black hooves. It’s down to this breed and the way its fat is distributed that creates jamón ibérico’s impressive marbling. The ham’s deep red colour is indicative of the pigs’ free range lifestyle – moving all the time around the dehesa means the meat is rich in myoglobin (a protein which receives oxygen from red blood cells) and iron.
The pigs are raised until they reach maturity at 18 to 24 months, weighing in at a minimum of 145kg (320lbs). The most important period in their lives is when they only eat grass and acorns for the last 60 days, during the montanera. Access to fresh grass is equally as important for moisture, so the pigs can eat more acorns.
How is jamón ibérico made?
After a lengthy pig-rearing process, there’s still a long way to go until slivers of ham can be expertly carved from a leg of jamón. First, a profiler inspects the meat and, like a sculptor, decides how much fat to trim. The legs are then chilled and salted, fat side down, for around one day per kilo (2.2lbs). After washing and drying, legs are hung and left to cure, in some cases, for up to seven years.
It’s a labour and time-intensive process so no wonder that the meat is one of the most expensive foods in the world…
Humidity is also an important factor in the process. A curing cellar must be low in temperature but high in humidity. The Montaraz expert explains, “The climate and the pig breed is why jamón ibérico is made in Jabugo. This is one of the rainiest places in Spain.” Humidity is controlled in curing cellars the old-fashioned way – by spraying the floor with water and opening the windows as needed.
The flavour of the meat here will be unique to these cellars – and boy, is there a lot of it. Walking around the cellars is like going down the rabbit hole. Legs are strung from the ceiling everywhere. In low-lit vault-like rooms, lining a meaty labyrinth of seemingly endless hallways and corridors which lead into vast warehouse-type spaces. The gamey, sweet smell is inescapable, in a good way.
Different cuts of jamón ibérico
There are different cuts of meat from a leg of jamón ibérico and each has its own characteristics. Here are a few of the main ones.
When you see a carver elegantly slicing jamón ibérico down the long side of the leg, when the hoof is pointing upwards, it’s the maza. This section is the main part of the ham and has the most meat. It’s a crowd-pleaser: a well-balanced flavour and nice amount of marbling.
Located on the opposite side of the leg to the maza (exposed for slicing when the hoof is pointing downwards), the babilla is the rump end. It’s smoother in flavour and offers less meat as it’s closer to the bone.
This is one of the tastiest cuts of jamón ibérico. The opposite end to the hoof, slivers of the punta are extremely marbled as the fat has melted into this part of the leg when it has been hanging. Its depth of flavour has a hint of pepper.
What to pair with jamón ibérico
Enjoying a plate of jamón ibérico by itself is pretty unbeatable but there are ways you can incorporate it into dishes. Chef José Pizarro says, “It’s a very diverse product. Of course, the best way to eat it is just carved because it’s not cheap. For me it’s best to use as much as I can from the leg to put on the plate. But when you’ve finished with what you can carve, you can use it for so many things.”
Discover products from Montaraz in our e-shop:
Jamón Ibérico de Bellota by Montaraz 100% Extremadura€988.00
MONTARAZ UNICO JAMON DE BELLOTA 100% IBERICO€23.70 – €29.00
Iberico Bellota Salchichón by Montaraz€42.00
Iberico Bellota chorizo by Montaraz€42.00
Ibérico Ham by Montaraz, Pasture Raised Boneless Extremadura€532.00
Ibérico Ham by Montaraz, Pasture Raised Extremadura€534.00
Jamón Ibérico de Bellota Ham by Montaraz 100 % Extremadura Bone In€989.00