Iberico ham is to meat what champagne is to alcohol. It is sophisticated, elegant, superbly delicious, and matures with age to a wonderful taste.
The mouth-watering aroma wafting from a piece of Iberico ham at a Spanish tavern, bar, or restaurant is very enticing. So what exactly is Iberico ham?
Pata Negra Iberian Pigs
Iberico ham is sourced from Pata Negra (Black Foot) Iberian pigs. This is a special breed of pigs carefully bred over a long period of time mostly in the north-western regions of Spain. They are a product of carefully inter-breeding of different pig breeds plus adaptation to a very particular type of climate. They thrive in free pastures of the Dehesas (cultural landscapes with minimal agriculture) in these Spanish regions. The free-roaming Iberian pigs feed almost exclusively on acorns (bellota) and this gives their ham the distinctive flavour.
The natural landscapes of the north-western regions of Spain are deliberately left unspoiled by humans. They provide a complete ecosystem that has been often described as a natural paradise. It is on these hills and valleys that the Iberico pigs roam freely, feed on natural foods, and breathe fresh countryside air.
What makes Iberico hams as tasty as they are and gives them that distinctive natural aroma and flavour is their diet. Their diet consists of small amounts of fresh green pasture and aromatic plants. However, their main source of food is the acorns from oak trees (known as bellota) which grow abundantly all over the countryside. The acorns are most abundant when they fall off the oak trees during the mast-feeding season (montenera). The free-roaming Iberico pigs walk long distances to find their food and this ensures they get lots of exercise which results in the perfect ham.
Ham Curing Process
Once the pig matures, the family holds a mantaza (or sacrifice) where salchichon, chorizo, and morcilla sausages will be made on the spot. Some choice cuts from the pig will be sold or prepared to be eaten fresh. The fatty legs will then be set aside and stored in sea salt still attached to distinguishing the black foot. After the settling period in the sea salt, the ham is then transferred to natural driers where the combination of very cold winter airs and very hot summer winds facilitate natural dehydration and curing. They are constantly supervised by experts yet remain almost totally undisturbed for a minimum of 18 months. Professionals take some tiny parts of the ham to check on its salinity and maturity, which signifies the quality of the ham. The ham is then taken to a dark cellar to slowly mature for a few more months before they are ready for consumption. The total time taken for this curing process is between 24 and 30 months.
The ready ham is a thin long piece of leg that has a golden color due to its fat. The meat inside is a rich dark red color with a network of fat veins. The taste is heavenly and the melting of the fat produces an aroma that titillates the senses.
The Iberico ham is a special type of ham that has a unique strong flavour. It takes time to perfectly cure the ham and the intriguing process produces a gourmet ham like no other.
Diego Ramirez is a top sous chef who worked his way up in London’s restaurant scene. He specializes in Spanish and mid-European cuisine. He has a deep knowledge on the evolution of the European diet and modern food trends.