In Spain there‘s a saying that goes: “Del cerdo me gustan hasta los andares”, literally meaning something like “I like pigs so much that I even like their walk” and figuratively that everything about the pig is simply great to eat. So this is what this article is about, one of the best products obtained from the pig and a culinary landmark of Spain: “jamón ibérico”.
Have you heard about jamón ibérico? It is undoubtedly one of the highlights of any trip to Spain, especially if you’re a food “aficionado”. This kind of cured ham is one of the many culinary treasures you can find around and about Spain. The art of making amazing delicacies by curing the finest pork meat is traditional in most regions of Spain. And pig legs are no exception, yielding fine “jamones”, of which the best are the hams made with ibérico pigs, an old breed indigenous to the Iberian Peninsula, that is, Spain and Portugal. These pigs are often black-coloured and have black feet too, that is why the best hams have traditionally been named “pata negra”, black foot, although this term has now become obsolete.
A fine cured ham called jamón serrano is also made out of the legs of common white pigs, like the famous hams of Trevélez, Granada, and of Teruel. Though jamón serrano has many passionate defenders and it can indeed be delicious too, it lacks the superb delicacy of the fat in jamón ibérico and it is not to be confused with it. And I can tell you they significantly differ in price.
Iberian pigs are said to descend from the crossbreeding of wild boars and the first pigs imported by the Romans. They were traditionally raised free-roaming in the “dehesa”, a peculiar ecosystem located mainly in the south west part of Spain, in the regions of Extremadura and Andalusia. This pasture land features species used for cattle grazing, especially for pigs, and also cork and holm oaks. The holm oaks produce the acorns which are eaten by the pigs and are said to give the meat its very especial flavor. Nowadays Iberian pigs only partly feed on acorns, as they only spend in the dehesas the last part of their lives. Until they are 18 months old they are all fed on fodder.
After the pigs are slaughtered, the ham curing process lasts between 8 and 36 months. The jamón ibérico is then looked after with much care, so that it acquires the degree of flavour, smell and humidity required. The ham is classified into four categories depending mainly on the percentage of acorns in the pig’s food: a higher percentage meaning a finer and more expensive ham.
Jamón ibérico is best eaten and enjoyed on its own, sliced in wafer-thin slices, interspersed with streaks of translucent fat, at ambient temperature and accompanied by a “fino” or dry Sherry. However, the serrano variety and the least expensive sorts of ibérico are widely used in cooking. Many truly Spanish dishes simply could not exist without the indispensable addition of jamón of either kind. Finely diced ham is used to spice up from scrambled eggs and omelettes to legume dishes, and even cold soups like “salmorejo” or the child-friendly “croquetas”. And when the whole pork leg is stripped bare from the meat, the bone itself is used in making broth too. You see? Nothing coming from a Spanish pig is ever wasted.
Miriam García is the GO! Travel expert on Spanish cuisine. She can also be found on her blog The Winter Guest.