Jamón Ibérico is the pride of Spain. The lineage of the unique animals that produce the hams stretches back to pre-history when they ran wild in the Iberian Peninsula. Columbus had some of them on the Santa María when he set out to discover the New World.
There are two types of black-hoofed Iberico pigs – one that lives the life of a normal pig and one that is free-range fed on acorns (bellotas) and wild plants. These are the coveted Bellota hams. The only difference is in diet and exercise, but those things make all the difference in the world.
The rare Bellota Jamón Ibérico hams are infused with the flavor of their favorite food, the acorn (bellota) from a cork tree. The paper-thin slices, glistening with healthy mono-unsaturated fat, provide a rich nutty flavor and tender texture. Spaniards consume the vast majority of these hams in their own country. Some producers have waiting lists for several years for their best products. They cannot produce enough hams to meet the demand from Spain, France, Japan and now America.
From the moment they are born, the special black Iberian hogs destined for Bellota quality are treated royally. For special periods after their birth, until their sacrifice (as the Spaniards term it), they live, sleep and forage under the open sky in specially maintained oak forests, called “la dehesa”. These rare black-hoofed descendants of native Iberian wild boar typically have over five acres in which to forage and roam. They live for about two years in this porcine paradise – many times the lifespan of a normal domestic pig.
In the bulking-up stage each fall, the pigs feast on 15 to 20 pounds of acorns or ‘bellotas’ per day. This allows them to gain as much as 2 pounds of body weight daily. The consistent exercise they enjoy as they forage in a free-range atmosphere is essential to the final quality of the hams.
Finally, the hams are ‘sacrificed’, salted and hung up to cure from two to four years. During this carefully monitored period when they are hanging in the mountain air, the hams lose 20% to 40% of their weight. Remarkably, the curing process converts much of the remaining fat of the ham into a beneficial good-cholesterol fat, much like extra virgin olive oil. But this process only occurs in the hams made from acorn fed pigs – producing Bellota hams.
What is Pata Negra?
Pata Negra is the informal term for the famous ‘black hoofed’ ham, produced from a venerable strain of Iberian hog, native only to Spain. Jamón Ibérico is the formal name ˜ it is the same thing. But the ultimate expression of this coveted ham is called Jamón Ibérico ‘Bellota” referring to those animals who spend their final days feasting on rich, mono-unsaturated acorns. Some people also call it ‘Jabugo’ ham after a famous Spanish ham town.
Will the bone-in hams have hoofs?
All of the whole bone-in Ibérico hams will have hooves, or patas, which proves that they are true Ibérico pigs.
How Spanish Jamón differs from other hams
Happy Animals, The Luck of the Cerdo Ibérico
The life of a Cerdo Ibérico is a fortuitous marriage of ecological and commercial values, for the most important priority of the producer is that his animals are happy and healthy. There are as many ways to raise the pigs as there are producers, but in order to foster harmony some producers keep the same pigs living together all of their lives. A contented pig thrives and the resultant hams are mellow.
A lucky pig is one who is born in late spring through early summer. This means that the animal’s prime will coincide with the prime season of acorn production, their favorite food. The final result is the unparalleled Jamón Ibérico de Bellota.
For Bellota hams (not the regular Ibérico hams) as the pigs freely wander around the forest meadow called the ‘dehesa’ in the fall, they make a bee-line for the cork and Holm oaks trees that are liberally located around the landscape. The trees are cascading thousands of rich oily acorns onto the forest floor.
The pigs are encouraged to run around the dehesa area for several miles a day. Not only does that keep them strong and healthy, it builds up a healthy appetite that is never sated. Each robust animal gains more than two pounds a day!
Because of their genetic makeup and the unique diet, much of the fat produced in a ‘Bellota’ Ibérico ham is healthy mono-unsaturated – as healthy as olive oil. Some wag said that Ibérico pigs were four legged amphoras of olive oil!!
All good things must come to an end. When the season is over and it is time for them to be ‘sacrificed’, the herd is led to an ample pen to settle down for the evening. The next morning they are fed, given warm showers and then while they are blissfully reclining they receive carbon monoxide and drift off to sleep. A humanitarian act yields a commercial bonus: a contented animal produces the best ham.
Dry cured hams have been produced throughout southern Europe for centuries. Spain, Portugal, France and Italy have highly valued hams employing a variety of breeds and curing methods.
This tradition of dry cured hams migrated to the Old South of the United States in 17th Century, especially in Virginia and the Carolinas. The well known Smoked hams from peanut fed pigs were produced in the Surry and Smithfield areas. The resulting hams from the several countries vary widely in flavor, aroma, texture and quality.
Country-style ham in America is a specially cured and smoked ham that is traditionally prepared in rural sections of Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Vermont, and other states. “Country ham” refers to a style, rather than a location.
Traditionally hogs for these hams were fed beechnuts, hickory nuts, acorns, and fruit to produce more flavorful and tender meat. This is seldom the case today. They are dry-cured in salt, smoked over fragrant hardwoods, and aged at least six months. These hams are meant to be cooked before eating, and require of 24 – 48 hour soaking in water to leech out the excess salt.
On the whole, Spanish ham usually has a more uniform texture, more intense flavor, and is usually less moist than other cured hams, because of the long curing stage. This is especially true of hams from acorn-fed Ibérico Bellota pigs.
The following is a random sampling of some of the better known of the the hundreds of other European and American cured hams:
Alentejo ham is an Ibérico ham from Portugal. It is similar to Spanish Ibérico ham, although somewhat smaller. The breeds are closely related, with the pigs are raised on the comparable Portuguese dehesa as they are in Spain. The open forest grasslands with acorn-bearing cork and Holm oak trees are critical to their development.
Ammerland ham is a wet-cured, boneless ham from Germany that has been cold-smoked with beech wood and juniper berries.
Ardennes from Bayonne is an air-dried, salt cured, uncooked ham from Belgium, which is sliced thinly for serving and has an appearance and flavor that is similar to Italian prosciutto ham. Thicker cut slices can be pan-fried
Bigorre ham is made from free-range Gascony black pigs, an Ibérico breed, which is raised in the Pyrenees Mountains in France.
Black Forest ham is a moist, boneless German-style ham made only from the top and bottom round. It is smoked over pine and fir and coated with beef blood to give it a black exterior. Very lean and tender, it is fully cooked, weighs 4 to 6 pounds, and is often sliced thin and used for sandwiches.
Irish ham is produced in Ulster near Belfast. It is pickled and smoked over peat fires in order to achieve a unique flavor. The Irish ham is prepared as you would an American country ham – soaking the remove excessive salt and then cooked.
Jambon cru (raw ham) or Jambon du pays (local ham) is a generic designation for French hams from Alsace and Vendée. They weigh in the neighborhood of 15 lb, and some of the Alsatian hams may be smoked.
Jambon sec (dry cured ham) is a designation for hams from France that meet a minimum weight and are dry cured for at least 3 months. Hams in this category include hams from the Ardennes, Auvergne, Bayonne, Laucaune, Najac and Savoie. Jambon sec supérieur denotes hams such as Bigorre that are from pigs raised and processed by traditional methods in France.
Prosciutto di Parma is the true prosciutto, a superior Italian ham from northern Italy’s province of Parma, the same area noted for Parmesan cheese. The special diet of chestnuts and whey derived from the cheese-making process that Parma pigs enjoy results in an excellent quality of meat. Parma hams are seasoned, salt-cured and air-dried but not smoked. They have a rosy-brown flesh that is firm and dense. Before dry curing many prosciutto hams are coated with lard and cured for at least 10 – 12 months, yielding a smooth-textured, slightly salty ham.
Prosciutto di San Daniele is a guitar-shaped Italian ham produced in San Daniele, a picturesque village of 8,000 located in northeastern Italy between the Alps and the Adriatic. Its micro-climate alternates between dryness and humidity which contributes to the prosciutto’s salty-sweet flavor and almost creamy texture. It is cured for at least 12 months.
Smithfield Ham has been produced in America since the Colonial times of the 17th Century, and is defined by legislation. According to the 1926 Statute passed by the General Assembly of Virginia, “Genuine Smithfield hams [are those] cut from the carcasses of peanut-fed hogs, raised in the peanut-belt of the State of Virginia or the State of North Carolina, and which are cured, treated, smoked, and processed in the town of Smithfield, in the State of Virginia.” These gourmet hams have a deep red meat that is dry and pungent. Modern Smithfield hams are not necessarily peanut fed.
Speck Alto Adige is a distinctive lightly smoked dry cured ham from Italy which has a unique hybrid of flavors. Its delicate aroma and defining taste are the result of the incorporation of two distinct gastronomic preferences in Europe. One is the smoking methods of general area of the north of Germany. The other is the salting techniques of the southern Mediterranean regions, such as Spain, Italy and Portugal. The result is a milder than northern smoked hams, yet stronger and less sweet than ham produced in southern Europe.
Virginia Hams a country ham from the United States, produced in states including Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee. The ham is produced from Berkshire black pigs raised mostly on corn. These pigs have a high proportion of marbling fat, and are cured up to a year. Some of the best hams are smoked over hardwoods like walnut, oak, maple or apple. A long salt curing phase necessitated by the local climate makes the final product very salty – up to three times the salt of a Spanish Jamón Serrano. Therefore in preparation cooking and serving, it is soaked for over 24 hours in a bath of pure water and then either roasted or simmered
Westphalian ham is gourmet boneless ham produced from pigs raised on acorns in Germany’s Westphalia forest. The ham is cured before being slowly smoked over beech wood mixed with juniper branches. The combination of the gourmet diet, curing and smoking results in a dark brown, very dense ham with a distinctive, light smoky flavor.
York ham is the quintessential English ham. Dry cured and matured over a period of at least ten weeks, it develops a wonderful depth of flavor and a firm yet succulent texture. The curing process means that the York is somewhat drier and saltier than the Wiltshire. This mild-flavored ham has delicate pink meat which is a favorite in Spanish tapas bars. In England, it is traditionally served with Madeira sauce.
Jamón Production Regions
Hams are produced throughout Spain, especially in mountainous areas with mild, dry summers and cold winters, which is ideal for curing.
These mountainous areas gave Jamón Serrano its name; Jamón Serrano means “mountain country ham.” Just about every hamlet and mountain village boasts their own version of the Jamón Serrano, because in the days before easy transportation each village produced their own hams following local custom.
The quality of these hams is determined by the rearing of the white pig, the cool mountain breezes that cured the hams, and it processing. Drawing on a wealth of experience, a skilled ham master determines the perfect time for each phase of curing until he determines that it is time to bring his masterpiece to market. It is a pure product yielding honest flavor.
Jamón Serrano is produced and served in every Spanish province. Although some regions have a longer tradition of producing Jamón Serrano than others, the preparation of Serrano ham certainly is not limited to a certain geographic area.
Since 2001, the European Union protects the process of Serrano ham production with the certification T.S.G., Traditional Specialty Guaranteed. This certification protects the authentic taste of Serrano ham and ensures consumers in Europe and all over the world that it refers to a historical, authentic and genuine product.
In 1990, the Consorcio del Jamón Serrano Español was formed to bring together the principal producers/exporters of Serrano ham in Spain, with the objective of guaranteeing the quality of Spanish Serrano ham and to offer a high quality product for export.
A Serrano ham certified by the Consorcio bears the label of the Consorcio del Jamón Serrano Español with its control number, and the “S” in the shape of a ham branded on the skin of the ham guarantees that the Serrano ham has passed the Consorcio’s rigorous standards.
Jamón Ibérico is produced in the natural range of the Cerdo Ibérico (the Ibérico pig), mainly in the high mountain meadows of western and southwestern Spain along the Portuguese border, but also in parts of Andalucía. In fact, the Ibérico ham designation can only refer to pigs reared in regions where the Dehesa natural pasture lands are found. These are:
- Salamanca The town of Guijuelo and surrounding area, in the region of Castile and León Extremadura
- Huelva the province that includes town of Jabugo and surrounding area, in the western most area of Andalucía.
- Los Pedroches Valley, in the region of Andalucía north west of Córdoba.
Flavor profiles are determines by the area where the animals are raised. The Jamón Ibérico produced in different regions varies in because of their particular micro climate and unique vegetation.
In order to assure the integrity of the Jamón Ibérico, local governmental agencies set strict standards concerning the geographic origin of the ham, the lineage of the pigs, the rearing of the animals and the steps followed to produce the final product. This earns the designation Denominación de Origin.
Jamón types, grades & cuts
The types and qualities of Spanish hams are determined by the breed of the pig, how and where it was raised, and how it was processed. Simple factors that make all the difference in the world.
Certain combinations of these factors are protected and warranted through certification by Denominación de Origin or the Consorcio del Jamón Serrano Español. These ensure that the hams that bear their seal deliver the quality and flavors synonymous with the name.
In their infancy, all pigs are raised on a diet that includes cereal grains and mother’s milk. While white pigs usually continue to eat only cereal feeds after weaning, Ibérico pigs are raised on a variety of diets. Diet is the second most important factor influencing the quality of the ham, and is one of the factors evaluated in determining Iberico ham grades.
Bellota grade Ibérico ham
Hams are from Iberico pigs, which have spent the last three to four months of their lives feasting on rich, oily acorns that have dropped from the ground from holm and cork trees in the mountain meadows of a region called the dehesa. This period of grazing on the open range is called the montanera, and the pigs add about half their weight during this period.
The coveted hams they produce are unique in the world: beautiful nutty ham slices which glisten when they are served because 60% of their marbled fat contains healthy mono triglycerides (like olive oil) that melt at room temperature. Because of its quality, many connoisseurs have referred to Jamón Ibérico Bellota as the “Kobe Beef of hams.”
Recebo grade Ibérico ham
These are hams from Ibérico pigs who have have enjoyed a shorter free range acorn grazing period or added less than 50% to their weight during the montanera, and are subsequently fattened and brought to market weight with cereal feed.
Cebo grade Ibérico ham
These are hams from Ibérico pigs who were raised on a diet of cereal feeds.
These are hams from Ibérico pigs, usually cross-bred with white pigs, who were raised on farms and fed cereal feeds, without a period of free range grazing.
Teruel ham, Trevélez ham, Gran Serrano ham
These hams are from white or Duroc pigs, who were raised on farms and fed cereal feed, and then cured for more than one year at high altitudes in dry climates such as Teruel and Sierra Nevada.
Oro (gold) Serrano ham, Plata (silver) Serrano ham
Hams from white pigs, who were raised on farms and fed cereal feed, then cured for less than 14 months anywhere in Spain.
Hams from white pigs, who were raised on farms (usually outside of Spain) and fed cereal feed raised, and then processed in Spain, and cured for less than 8 months.
Hams from Spain are commonly offered in the following cuts, whether made from Iberico pigs or others:
- Whole hams
- Whole hams (with foot)
- Paletas (shoulders)
- Lomos (pork loins)
- Chorizos and salchichónes (sausages)
The Artisanal Hams of Spain
Picture paper-thin strips of dark red ham like petals ringing a hand painted plate. Imagine big honest hams curing in the mountain air. Picture individual hams resting on stands in family kitchens throughout Spain with a long slim knife at hand for any and all to slice a treat.
In Spain, Jamón is hospitality. Jamón is Spain. Of all the European hams Jamón from Spain is the Gold Standard.
There exist two great traditions of artisanal cured hams in Spain, both of which are tasty and nutritious, and the source of great pride among Spaniards:
Jamon Serrano is a cured country ham from white pigs. From time immemorial in the mountains of Spain, country people have rolled fresh hams in sea salt and hung them from their rafters to cure. A year to eighteen months later the jamones are ready to mount on special stands that are designed so that anyone can stop by, carve a few paper-thin slices, and enjoy an impromptu snack – perhaps with some manchego cheese.
Today, Jamon Serrano comprises about 90% of Spain’s annual ham production. These hams are produced mostly by recreating the effect of traditional techniques in modern production facilities, from white pigs raised mostly on cereal grains. The hams are made from Duroc, Pietrain, Landrace or other large white pigs, which flourish throughout Europe. When compared to hams processed in other countries, however, Jamon Serrano is less moist with a consistent texture, some marbling, a purple color, and a deep ham flavor.
Jamón Ibérico is the pride of Spain. The lineage of the unique animals that produce these hams stretches back to pre-history when they ran wild in the Iberian Peninsula. Columbus had some of them on the Santa María when he set out to discover the New World. Our family, who founded Jamon.com, has been on a quest for the finest of all hams, Jamón Ibérico, since we started our business in 1996.
Jamón Ibérico is produced from Cerdo Ibérico, a pig native to Southwestern Spain and Southeastern Portugal. These pigs are much fatter and have more marbled meat than regular pink pigs. As opposed to their luckier Bellota destined bretheren, they are mostly fed cereal feeds, and may be allowed limited free range time where herbs supplement their diet.
Jamón Ibérico Bellota: a sub category of Jamón Ibérico where the pigs are free to roam the meadows of the ‘dehesa’. During the autumn prior to their sacrifice, they are encouraged to gorge on acorns from the Holm oak and cork trees, sometimes gaining as much as a kilo of weight a day. Much of the resultant fat is mono-unsaturated.
Jamón Ibérico comprises only about 10% of Spain’s annual ham production. Jamón Ibérico hams are aged from 24 to 36 months and have distinct marbling, a dark purple color, and an intense ham flavor coming from mono-unsaturated fat.
The Curing Process
On the face of it, curing hams is a simple process. All you need is salt, air and time. The process starts in conditions of low temperature and high humidity, and gradually the temperature is raised and the humidity lowered. It is a natural, spontaneous, ongoing transformation that has four distinct production stages:
Salting and washing. After the pigs are sacrificed, the freshly cut hams are covered with sea salt for a week or ten days, depending on weight. The rule of thumb is 1 day per two pounds of meat. The salting room is kept between 0 – 3°C at 85-95% humidity. After this period, the hams are rinsed in lukewarm water to remove salt crystals from the surface.
Resting period. Once cleansed of surface salt, the hams are kept for one to two months in cold rooms at a temperature between 3° and 6° C and a relative humidity of 80 or 90%. During this resting period the salt penetrates the pieces thoroughly, enhancing dehydration and conservation. This process gives hams a significantly denser consistency, since much water has been removed.
Drying and maturation. During this period, hams are moved to a “secadero”, or natural drying area, where temperature and humidity are controlled through ventilation. Temperature ranges from 15° to 30° C for the 6 to 9 month drying period, during which hams continue to lose moisture, and “sweating” – dissemination of fat throughout the muscle fibers, which then retain the aroma they have acquired – also occurs. The final flavor and aromas begin to develop during this stage, due to a series of changes that occur in the protein and fat of these hams. (This is usually the final stage in processing a Serrano ham.)
Unlike prosciutto or Parma ham, the curing ham is not covered by lard or any other external ingredient that would affect the flavor. It is pure ham, waiting to be improved by the mountain air. At the right time, determined by the ham master who inspects each ham, the Ibérico hams are transferred to the bodega where they hang from a cord for as much time as it will take to finish the cure and produce the best product.
Bodega phase. Ibérico hams are then hung in cellars, or bodegas, for up to a maximum of 30 months. Temperature may range between 10° and 20° C, and relative humidity, between 60 and 80%. During this phase, hams continue to undergo the biochemical processes initiated during the curing process, enhanced by microbial flora, which give them their particular aroma and final flavor.
Usually the Jamón Ibéricos take at least two years to reach their peak of flavor – some of the best ones the ham master will cure for another half a year, or more.
Part of his decision is based upon weight – the larger hams will take a longer time to cure, the other factor in his decision is an art.
Determining the time when the Jamón Ibérico is ready is the responsibility of a specialist who draws on years of experience. He inserts a thin sliver of bone into the interior of the curing ham, and by sight and aroma makes his decision. It is similar to a baker inserting toothpick into a baking cake to see if it is done – except the stakes are vastly higher, since this meat is so precious.
The original Mediterranean forest, known as the encina, once stretched over vast portions of Spain. However, thanks to the Roman occupation, subsequent populations, wars and hunger, the encina has long since disappeared.
It was used for timber, animal pastureland, firewood, and the production of charcoal. Reforestation was a prime project of the government after the devastating Civil War of 1936-1939
A few patches survive of something resembling this vast primeval forest; even though on a small scale firewood is still gathered, bark from cork trees is still harvested, charcoal produced, bee hives are kept and it has become an area for recreational hunting.
Rather than clearing huge forests of holm oak, the Spaniards selectively thinned the trees in order to create the tree-studded meadow known as the dehesa.
This dehesa system plays an essential role for birds from Northern and Central Europe that winter in Southwestern Spain. In addition, the dehesa is vital to the survival of many native Spanish birds, such as the nearly extinct Spanish imperial eagle.
The holm oak, together with cork tree and the pastures form a unique bio-diverse ecosystem, which covers almost five million acres of western Spain and Portugal. Large extensions of holm oak, cork and gall oak forest in the southwest of the Iberian peninsula make up the dehesa. Each tree takes between 30 and 40 years to grow to maturity.
Inadvertently you may have first seen the dehesa when as a child your parents read you “Ferdinand the Bull.” Laid-back Ferdinand loved lounging under cork trees! But a word of caution: should you encounter a bull in the dehesa today, he probably will not be as mellow.
The dehesa constitutes an extraordinary ecosystem of which the pig is an essential component. It is their favorite terrain, as well as home to Retinta cows and Merino sheep.
The combination of holm oak with evergreen cork trees is fortuitous. The cork tree produces acorns after the holm oak thereby extending the seasonal feast for the animals. extended season. A hybrid (known as a mesto) has been bred that bears acorns between peaks of the other two oaks, thereby giving a constant supply to the Cerdo Ibérico.
The dehesa is a beautiful harmony: holm oak and cork trees, grasses from the pastures, aromatic plants and acorns. It is also an especially important reserve for aromatic plants such as thyme or rosemary and a wide variety of mushrooms. This exceptional habitat that provides a natural and balanced diet to the Ibérico pig, key to achieve the sensory quality of its meat.
Due to the commitment of the Ibérico ham industry, this special ecosystem, which has always been the favorite home of the Ibérico pig, continues to thrive. Acorns, fruit of both the holm oak and cork tree, are the basis of the Ibérico pig’s diet, although it also feeds on the pastures, stubble and wild legumes, making a decisive contribution to the ecological balance of its natural habitat.
Fortunately, due to the increased interest in Jamón Ibérico, the commercial value of the dehesa has risen dramatically thereby sparing it from the encroaching bulldozers of land developers.
The Health Benefits of Ibérico de Bellota
Can anything this wonderful be this healthy? Absolutely. Remember that this is a ham from an extraordinary pig who traces his lineage back to the time of the cavemen. The Cerdo Ibérico has quite a different DNA than the meat of run-of-the mill pink pigs you are used to buying. In addition, their diet of herbs, grasses and acorns are a significant factor.
But remember, this combination of genetics and diet only comes to full fruition in Jamón Ibérico de Bellota – hams made from Ibérico pigs that lived part of their lives feasting on acorns in the oak forests of the Dehesa.
The fat of Ibérico Bellota ham contains over 55% oleic acid (a mono-unsaturated fatty acid). Rigorous scientific studies have shown that these fats exercise a beneficial effect on cholesterol in the blood by increasing the amount of good (HDL) cholesterol and reducing bad (LDL) cholesterol. Only virgin olive oil has a higher oleic acid content.
The total proportion of unsaturated fatty acids in cured Iberico hams that have consumed a diet of acorns is over 75%, making it the most “cardiohealthy” of all animal fats, even healthier than some fats of plant origin. The breed of pigs is not the only explanation; their staple diet of acorns and grasses also plays an important role.
Jamón Ibérico de Bellota provides many vitamins which nourish the nervous system: B1, B6, B12 and folic acid. It is also rich in vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant, and in minerals such as copper, essential for bones and cartilage; calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, phosphorus and finally, selenium, which has been attributed with antiaging properties. Ibérico bellota ham can be included in low calorie diets.
A ham that has a sublime flavor; is made from humanely treated animals; and is actually good for you. Could you ask for anything more?
The Pig Breeds
White pigs, which populate all of Europe, are the source of Jamón Serrano. Those bred in Spain are close relatives to those throughout neighboring countries throughout the European Union. Some of the most familiar breeds are Duroc, Pietrain and Landrace.
The Cerdo Ibérico has a lineage which reaches back to the time of the cavemen of the Iberian Peninsula. The Ibérico is a strain of pig that varies significantly from other pigs found considerably from the European pigs.
This is a rare breed, since the herds are small, and the Dehesa, the type of wooded meadow in which they forage is in short supply. A critical factor has been the existence of this Dehesa which is a meadow-like environment forested with acorn bearing trees.
Without the Dehesa there are no Ibérico hams. The unique genetic structure of the animal and its diet yield a ham that is more thoroughly marbled than a white pig. The acorn diet contributes to its rich and nutty flavor.
Iberico pigs are divided into black (Entrepelado, Lampiño, Mamellado, Silvela and Negro de los Pedroches), red (Retinto (Colorado, Oliventina), Torbiscal), spotted (Manchado de Jabugo), and light-skinned Iberico pigs (Dorado Gaditano), although these light-skinned Iberico pigs are nearly extinct.
Since pre-history, the Cerdo Ibérico has lived in free-range conditions, mainly in the mountains of western Spain along the Portuguese border, but also in parts of Andalucía. The Ibérico pig has dark skin with a sparse coat, a pointed snout, and long, slender legs.
The most common crossbreed is between Retintos or Lampiños Iberico pigs and Duroc-Jersey white pigs. Although you might think that a purebred Ibérico pig would produce the finest Jamón Ibérico, cross breeding makes a more balanced fat to lean ratio — up to a point.
Breeders are careful to keep the proportion of Iberico stock above 75%, because that is the minimum required by the four Denominations of Origin for Iberico pigs. This guarantee is why many feel that the designated D.O. is crucial to the consumer.
Mangelica pigs also produce hams in Spain. They are a Hungarian breed that is a distant relative of the Ibérico pig. It has amusingly curly hair, making it look somewhat like a sheep.
The Mangalica has the highest percentage of fat among pigs raised in Spain. This fat content makes its hams and loins mature very slowly into a ham with exceptionally rich aromas and flavor. Mangalica production is very limited, and the breed has been in danger of becoming.
One of the most important factors in determining the quality and characteristics of the resulting ham is the breed of the pig, especially in determining the way the fat is distributed in the ham.
Ibérico pigs yield hams that are streaked with glossy marbling fat. One of the distinctive genetic traits of this breed is its ability to store fat in muscle tissue, the key to the unmistakable flavor and texture of Ibérico hams. The hams from these pigs are known as Jamón Ibérico.
The Ibérico hams of Dehesa de Extremadura are characteristically long and slender. The hoof is dark, and the color of the flesh ranges from rosy to a deep purplish crimson. The texture of the ham is remarkably soft. Due to high percentage of healthy mono unsaturated fat within the meat, slices of Ibérico Bellota glisten when served at room temperature. The melting point of the fat is about 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Ibérico ham is also popularly known as ‘Pata Negra’ (black hoof) because the skin and hoof of an Ibérico hog tend to be black. This can be a confusing term because there are varieties of Iberico pigs that are not black. Conversely, there are also pigs that are not of the Ibérico blood line with black or very dark hides.
White pigs yield Jamón Serrano (or Serrano ham) that is generally leaner than those produced by their distant Ibérico cousins. They carry their fat on the outside of the ham rather than heavily marbled within the muscles. Serrano hams tend to be uniform in size, with reddish meat and white or slightly yellowish fat. The meat of Serrano hams is slightly salty and has a mild aroma.