Jamón ibérico – a damn good ham


We get stuck into a meaty issue (sorry) as Tomas Mowlam explains the culinary wonder of jamón ibérico. Italy has prosciutto, Croatia has Pršut, Spain even has another famous ham – jamón Serrano – so what’s all the fuss? Well jamón ibérico is just a different league of pig based goodness.

The first difference is that Jamón Serrano comes from the white pig, but Jamón ibérico is made from the black pig, cerdo negro, nicknamed pata negra for their thin black legs.

The second major difference is the care and strict regulation with which every stage of the production of the ham is governed.

Piglets are weaned, then fattened on cereals and acorns, and then allowed to roam through la dehesa; groves of holm oaks known as encina in Spain. Chowing down on sweet acorns (bellota) and rooting about on the dusty ground of la dehesa is key to the ham.

The diet of bellota during la montanera, the period from October to January when the acorns fall to the ground gives ham its nutty/olive taste. The pigs have to weigh 160kg or more, and are limited to two pigs per hectare so the little porkers get their fill of bellota.

If they’re judged to have passed the strict regulations they are graded. The top grade is Jamón ibérico de bellota, which means it’s a pure bred pig, fed solely on bellota during the montanera and aged at least three years. It’s pricey too.

It mainly comes from the areas of Salamanca, Extremadura and Andalucia. The hams from Guilejo in Salamanca, and Huelva in particularly the town of Jabugo, are some of the most famous.

The Spanish protection of this makes French defence of Champagne look timid and the rules governing production are so strict that the end result should be excellent whichever mark you buy.

After the pigs go the great slaughterhouse in the sky they’re cured and dried, a process which can take up to four years for the very best hams. And my god is it worth the wait; the jamon is sliced wafer thin and it melts in a salty, ruby-red flavour burst.

P&O Ferries is running the Portsmouth – Bilbao service until the end of the summer, so hop on board while you’ve got the chance.

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