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Iberian Ham, arguably the best ham in the world

Iberian Ham, arguably the best ham in the world

César Pastrana - 2009-02-02

Legend has it that the ham was born when a pig fell and drowned in a gully filled with salty water. The pig was discovered by shepherds who discovered after roasting that the salted meat provided a very pleasant flavor, particularly the ham.

From that moment, the shepherds continued to salt their hams in order to perfect the taste that we know today and that nature had, so generously, shown to them. In addition, they realized that salting the ham enabled them to conserve the ham in perfect condition for much longer periods of time.
As well as being a prestigious culinary product, Iberian ham offers countless health-related benefits. The low-calorie meat reduces cholesterol and is rich with all kinds of vitamins, as well as folic acid, so beneficial to the nervous system and smooth functioning of the brain. Rich in minerals, essential for bone and cartilage wellbeing, the ham is also a powerful antioxidant and helps to prevent cardiovascular disease.
Both the cut and the preservation is of vital importance if the ham’s benefits are to be fully appreciated. Slices should be small and thin with clean edges to protect the flavour and should be made immediately before serving. The ham should also be stored, preferably hung, in a cool, dry place andconsumed at room temperature in order to maximise its unique flavour.
The Iberian pig
Reared primarily in the meadows of the southwest of Spain, the breed is left to roam and feed in total freedom until reaching their required weight. During this three month grazing period, running from November to January and referred to as the “montanera”,  the pigs feed naturally on grass, herbs and, most critically, the acorns that populate the area and form their staple diet.
Achieving an authentic Iberian acorn-fed ham (jamón ibérico de bellota)can take up to three years, a lengthy and expensive process that turns the purebred Iberian pigs into one of the world’s more exclusive delicacies.
The designation of origin (DO) mark guarantees the quality and status of an acorn-fed ham and guidelines stipulate that labeling should clearly indicate the classification and grading of the pig’s diet to prevent deception or confusion as buying an authentic acorn-fed Iberian ham is not the same as buying other ibérico hams such as Recebo or Pienso. How do they differ?
Well, Recebo Iberian ham comes from pastured pigs reared on a diet that mixes natural grass from the mountain ranges with feed such as grain. Jamón Ibérico de Pienso stems from pigs fed exclusively with grain. The differences are noticeable in terms of both quality and price.
The complexity of flavour and aroma is acquired during a long development process that involves treating and maturing the ham in a naturally dry environment, which requires a specific climate of cold winters, warm summers and high wind levels. This is a long and costly process that stretches to three years. Each stage of the process - rinsing, blanching, peeling, quartering, cooling, trimming, salting, drying and storing is overseen by specialist personnel.
Following slaughter, the process that gives the hams their instantly recognizable character, image and personality takes place: the V-shaped serrano cut.After this, comes the first stage of the treatment process: the salting. Hams are packed between layers of sea salt within rigorously controlled conditions, including a constant temperature of about 3 degrees and a humidity level of 90%.
They will then remain in these chambers, in more or less total darkness, for a specified duration dictated by their weight. The hams are rinsed to remove all salt tracesbefore being subjected to rigorous temperature and humidity controls and left to dry naturally through exposure to wind. In order to achieve authentic curing conditions, hams are hung, one by one, for between 6 and 9 months in a controlled temperature of between 15 and 30 degrees before then being moved to a cellar for aging, a process that can extend to two years.
Patience is required for time to play its part in this stage of the process. During this period, the ham will lose up to 35% of its original weight, at which point it will begin to acquire its characteristic and unique taste and aroma.This skill and craft involved in this process, which can exceed 3 years, has seen Iberian ham achieve an elevated status and authentic acorn-fed Iberian ham has come to be seen as one of the best and most expensive hams in the world.
Those seeking even greater exclusivity can contact one of the producers of origin-designated ham in order to place a direct order. By doing so, you will have a ham assigned directly from the dryer, labeled and addressed and delivered at the appropriate time.
Tips for choosing Iberian Ham
1. The meat of an Ibérico ham is not necessarily black. There are many Iberian breed varieties that provide lighter shades of skin; what should be dark is the hoof. The error stems from the popular expression "pata negra".
2. The shape of an Ibérico ham should never be thick, but slim and elongated. Remember that usually the length of Iberian legs will exceed the width and the average weight is between 5 and 8 pounds.
3. When the ham is cut, the inner part should possess irregular, marbled yellowish stains. Don’t be put off as this is a sign of the ham’s quality. Use your thumb to press the surface gently. If you find that there is not too much tension and that it leaves a deep imprint then the Ham is acorn-fed (jamón es de bellota).
4. Don’t be put off by the yellowish fat found on the rind of an Iberian ham. This colour is the result of oxidation and is an indication of the maturation process. If this strip of fat is white then the ham is likely to be insufficiently matured.
5. Acorn-fed Iberian ham is expensive, reflecting its exclusivity as a product. Be wary of special offers or excessively low prices. It’s always worth comparing prices for more than one brand in order to find a ham that suits your budget but bear in mind that if you’re looking for a genuine acorn-fed Ibérico ham, then you are going to have to pay for it.
Complimenting the dish
Many dishes can be married with specific drinks in order to make a dining experience as enjoyable as possible. There are no hard and fast rules, of course, as personal taste is everything.
However, experts do offer some general recommendations and a product as exquisite as acorn-fed Iberian ham deserves companions to enhance its qualities.
It could be argued, on one hand, that to fully appreciate the flavour and aroma of acorn-fed Iberian ham it is best eaten alone or simply with some bread or, if you prefer, tomato.
Red wines, aged or otherwise, and good quality dry white wines make good companions.
The experts, however, recommends Andalusian Fino as the ideal partner due to its soft aroma, that works so well with its slightly spicy tone and low acidity.
Whatever you decide upon….enjoy!
Practical Information
Maximiliano Jabugo S.L
Marqués de Aracena, 4
21360 El Repilado. JABUGO. Huelva
Juan Pedro Domeq S.L
Velazquez 53
28001 Madrid
Sanchez Romero Carvajal
Ctra. San Juan del Puerto s/n
21290 Jabugo. Huelva

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