Jamón Ibérico, the Treasure of Spain

January 2010

We at La Tienda spent over ten years on a quest to bring the finest of all hams to the U.S. - Jamón Ibérico. Like the Beluga caviar or Kobe beef, Jamón Ibérico is the ultimate of its kind. The combined efforts of many Jamón enthusiasts culminated in the first Ibérico hams arriving on our shores in 2007.

Embutidos y Jamónes Fermín was the first company to export Ibérico ham to the U.S. This small family company invested countless hours and a significant amount of money to make their facilities ready for USDA approval. Since then, other companies have been approved, but we all owe Fermín a debt of gratitude for making this dream come true.

The first Jamones Ibéricos (hams) arrived in time for Christmas in 2007. The first was sliced by celebrity chef José Andrés on December 12th of that year with the Spanish ambassador to the U.S. in attendance. Now many types of Ibérico ham are available, including acorn fed Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, slices, bone-in hams and boneless hams

The Quest for Jamón Ibérico

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. Our family began our quest for this finest of all hams when we started our business in 1996.

Ibérico pigs, the ancient Spanish breed live one of two different lifestyles - one lives the life of a normal pig eating grain, and the other is pasture raised and finished on acorns (bellotas) and wild plants. The first produces the delectable Jamón Ibérico. But the the acorn fed pigs produce the ultimate - Jamón Ibérico de Bellota. The only difference is in diet and exercise, but those things make all the difference in the world.

The rare Jamón Ibérico de Bellota hams are infused with the flavor of their favorite food, the acorn (bellota) from oak and cork trees. 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 curing houses have waiting lists for several years for their best products. They cannot always produce enough hams to meet the demand from Spain, France, Japan and now America.

From the moment they are born, the special black Ibérico hogs destined for Bellota quality are treated royally. From the time they are weaned until their 'sacrifice' (as the Spaniards term it), they live, sleep and forage under the open sky in specially maintained vast oak forests, called la dehesa. These rare black-hoofed descendants of native Iberian wild boar each 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 plentiful exercise they enjoy as they forage in the forest is essential to the final quality of the hams, because it allows the beneficial fat to be marbled into the muscles.

Finally, the pigs are 'sacrificed,' and the hams are salted and hung to cure from two to four years. The hams hang with mountain air circulating among them, all the while carefully monitored by the Maestro de Jamón. Over time, the hams lose 20% to 40% of their weight as much of the fat melts away. Remarkably, the curing process converts much of the remaining fat into a beneficial good-cholesterol fat, much like extra virgin olive oil. This magical process only occurs in the hams made from acorn fed pigs - producing Ibérico de Bellota hams.

Answers to Your Questions

What is Pata Negra? 

Pata Negra is the informal term for the famous 'black hoofed' ham, produced from a venerable strain of Ibérico hog, native only to Spain. This can refer to either Jamón Ibérico or Jamón Ibérico de Bellota. Some people also call them 'Jabugo' hams, after a famous Spanish ham town, but again, this is just slang for any Ibérico ham. 

What is the difference between Jamón Ibérico and Jamón Ibérico de Bellota?

Ibérico refers to the black Spanish pig. Bellota literally means acorns, or acorn fed. Jamón Ibérico is made from an Ibérico pig that eats normal feed. Jamón Ibérico de Bellota refers to Ibérico pigs who are pasture raised and feast on acorns.

How do I serve Ibérico ham?

Serve very thin slices at room temperature. It should be savored with a dry, refreshing wine. Like caviar, you only need a couple of ounces per person to enjoy this delicacy. Jamón Ibérico does not need to be cooked.

How do I store Ibérico ham?

Boneless or sliced Jamón Ibérico should be kept chilled until it is served. It can be stored for a couple of months as long as it is in its original packaging. Once opened the sliced ham should be eaten within a day or two. The boneless can be kept for weeks as long it is carefully wrapped and refrigerated. The bone-in ham can be stored at room temperature after it is taken out of its packaging. It can last several weeks on a ham holder as long as the cut surface is covered with plastic wrap. The cut surface can become dry or have a slight amount of mold if left for more than a couple of days, but this does no harm - simply discard the first slice and enjoy the remaining ham.

How many people will a Jamón Ibérico serve?

A pack of slices will serve a few people one time. The whole hams can serve up to 50 people at one event. A whole ham can be enjoyed by several people for a number of weeks as long as it is well cared for.

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