SPAIN FOCUS- Jamon is another superb Spanish product, to be enjoyed as simply as possible.
Spain rises to prominence; Spain's jamón ibérico is rising in popularity as well. Similar in form and process to Italian prosciutto, it gets its reputation from the animal's diet. In their final months, the pigs eat only acorns, which gives the meat a sweet-nutty-fatty flavour profile. The highest ibérico-grade hams are dubbed bellota ("acorn" in Spanish).
Spain is the largest producer and consumer of ham in the world
Spain produces a staggering 40 million hams a year and few meals pass by without at least a few slivers of jamon finding its way onto the table. However, jamon made from pure iberico pigs comprises only around 5% of that amount. The rest comes from other regions of Spain, such as Teruel and Trevelez, and are primarily produced from the white pig.
There are four designated regions for the production of jamon Iberico in Spain
These regions are Guijuelo, Huelva, Valle de los Pedroches, and Extremadura, all in the southwest of the country in the region covered by the Dehesa microclimate. The rearing, slaughter and curing of the jamon is arguably the most stringently regulated of any food on earth.
Jamon is healthy
It is hard to believe that eating a pork product could be the healthy option, but research shows that the acorns eaten by the iberico pigs are rich sources of oleic acid. It is the same chemical found in olives, and the pigs are often referred to locally as “olives with legs.” The oleic acid is stored in the fat of the ham and is a monounsaturated fatty acid that has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol.
Jamon iberico de bellota has its roots in the Islamic occupation of Spain
Although there are records of the curing of pork back to the time of the Romans and beyond, the importance of pork products, and particularly ham, to Spain has its roots in the Moorish occupation of the region that lasted until the 15th century. Eating pork was seen as a symbol of religious and political independence from the Islamic Moors and took on a special place in the hearts of the christian Spanish people.
The black Iberian pig lives primarily in the south and southwest parts of Spain, including the provinces of Salamanca, Ciudad Real, Cáceres,Badajoz, Seville, Córdoba and Huelva.
Immediately after weaning, the piglets are fattened on barley and maize for several weeks. The pigs are then allowed to roam in pasture and oak groves to feed naturally on grass, herbs, acorns, and roots, until the slaughtering time approaches. At that point, the diet may be strictly limited to acorns for the best quality jamón ibérico, or may be a mix of acorns and commercial feed for lesser qualities.
The hams from the slaughtered pigs are salted and left to begin drying for two weeks, after which they are rinsed and left to dry for another four to six weeks. The curing process then takes at least twelve months, although some producers cure their jamones ibéricos for up to 48 months.
The 'matanza', or sacrifice, has traditionally been a family affair. A pig would be slaughtered and the whole family would gather to preserve the meat for the rest of the year. Chorizo, salchichón and morcilla sausages would be made on the spot. Choice cuts would be set aside to be eaten fresh. And the fatty legs would be packed in sea salt and hung to dry in the cool winter air. This process still continues in some towns as it has for thousands of years.
In particular, the ibérico hams from the towns of Guijuelo in the Salamanca province and Jabugo in the Huelva province are known for their consistently high quality and both have their own Denominación de origen. Almost the entire town of Jabugo is devoted to the production of jamón ibérico; the biggest producer is 5J Sánchez Romero Carvajal. The town's main square is called La plaza del Jamón.
The hams are labeled according to the pigs' diet, with an acorn diet being most desirable:
- The finest is called jamón ibérico de bellota (acorn). This ham is from free-range pigs that roam oak forests (called la dehesa) along the border between Spain and Portugal, and eat only acorns during this last period. It is also known as jamón ibérico de Montanera. The exercise and diet have a significant impact on the flavor of the meat; the ham is cured for 36 months.
- The next grade is called jamón ibérico de recebo. This ham is from pigs that are pastured and fed a combination of acorns and grain.
- The third type is called jamón ibérico de cebo, or simply, jamón ibérico. This ham is from pigs that are fed only grain. The ham is cured for 24 months.
Additionally, the word puro (pure, referring to the breed) can be added to the previous qualities when both the father and mother of the slaughtered animal are of pure breed and duly registered on the pedigree books held by official breeders.
The term pata negra is also used to refer to jamón ibérico in general, and may refer to any one of the above three types. The term refers to the color of the pigs' nails, which are white in most traditional pork breeds, but black for the Black Iberian breed. While as a general rule, a black nail should indicate an Ibérico ham, there are cases of counterfeits, with the nails being manually painted.
Bellota jamones are prized both for their smooth texture and rich, savory taste. A good ibérico ham has regular flecks of intramuscular fat (marbling). Because of the pig's diet of acorns, much of the fat is oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid that has been shown to lower LDLcholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol.
The fat content is relatively high compared to jamón serrano, thus giving a rich taste.
The majority of Serrano hams are made from the Landrace breed of white pig and are not to be confused with the much more expensive and entirely different Jamón ibérico. Because of the large number of pigs available for making serrano and no need for finishing with acorns Serrano is much less expensive than Iberico, but almost as good to taste
Fresh hams are trimmed and cleaned, then stacked and covered with salt for about two weeks in order to draw off excess moisture and preserve the meat from spoiling. The salt is then washed off and the hams are hung to dry for about six months. Finally, the hams are hung in a cool, dry place for six to eighteen months, depending on the climate, as well as the size and type of ham being cured. The drying sheds (secaderos) are usually built at higher elevations, which is why the ham is called mountain ham.
Throughout Spain you'll be delighted by the number of bars displaying their selection of the best jamon, and along with wine you'll be able to choose from a menu of specific manufacturers and years of production, especially of Iberico jamon.
There is a real pride in the display and in the slicing and serving of this delicacy, which has to be experienced. And the sweet fatty slices are the very best ham and a perfect accompanyment for sherry or a cold Estrella Damm.