Iberico Ham 5 Things You Didn’t Know

When you think of fine dining, foods and drinks such as champagne, caviar, and foie gras come to mind. In the world of meats, Iberico ham from the Spanish southwest is the connoisseurs’’ gem. The ham is so delicious and has a unique taste and aroma mainly due to the Iberico pigs’ diet which is mainly composed of acorns that fall off from oak trees. Not many people outside of Europe are familiar with this refined delicacy as it is not as widely exported as other foods. However, it has recently been gaining a lot of publicity and has become a favorite chef’s special for gourmet chefs and world class restaurants. Even those familiar with the name Iberico ham do not have detailed knowledge of this gourmet dish. Some of the 5 top things you may not have known about Jamon Iberico include:


Spain Leads in Ham Production and Consumption

In many countries, ham is something you buy in slices and make salads and sandwiches with occasionally. In Spain, most households enjoy either one type of ham or another with at least one meal every two days. The country produces approximately 40 million legs of ham each year and at least 5% of this is the high grade Iberico ham. Majority of this Spanish ham production comes from white pigs in areas such as Trevelez and Teruel while Iberico ham is produced from the Pata Nagra, or black pigs, found in the southwestern dehesas of areas such as Salamanca.

Iberico Ham Is Produced In 4 Spanish Regions

In Spain, you cannot simply call your ham Iberico ham without it being approved through a rigorous process. One of the criteria of qualifying ham as Jamon Iberico is that it has to come from only 4 regions. Iberico ham can only be produced from the black pigs reared in Valle de los Pedroches, Guijuelo, Extremadura, and Huelva. All these areas are within the Spanish Southwest that has the particular microclimate of the Dehesas. The microclimate is characterized by very cold winters and very warm summers and the feeding of the pigs and curing process determine the eventual taste, aroma, and quality of the ham. How the Iberico pigs are reared, slaughtered, and cured is one of the most tightly regulated food preparation procedures in the world.

Jamon Iberico Is Healthy Ham

When we think of most pork products we think of the oozing unhealthy fats typical of most pig meat. Jamon Iberico ham itself shows many veins of fat coursing through the meat and this may lead one to think of the ham as unhealthy. However, the Pata Negra pigs of Iberico are commonly referred to as “Olives with Legs”. This is because of the high oleic acid content in the ham. It is a mono-unsaturated fatty acid commonly found in olive oil and has been scientifically proven to cause reduction in LDL cholesterol and an increase in HDL cholesterol. The oleic acid found in Iberico ham is as a result of the pigs’ diet of bellota (acorns).

Iberico Ham Has Roots in the Islamic Occupation

Around the year 711 A.D, Governor Tariq Ibn-Zyiad crossed the strait of Gibraltar with an army of 10,000 soldiers. This led to a 700-year control of the Iberian Peninsula by the Islamic Moors. Muslims regard pork as taboo and for that reason, Spaniards viewed the eating of pork as a form of rebellion or heroic resistance during the Islamic Occupation. By the time the Moorish occupation was ending in the 15th century, the eating of pork products in the Iberian Peninsula and elsewhere in Spain was regarded as a sign of political and religious independence. Since then, the eating of ham has had special connotations in Spanish culture.

Importation of Jamon Iberico to the US Has Been Illegal Till 2005

There is a very good reason why most Americans have never come across Jamon Iberico. It is because the Spanish slaughter houses that produce Iberico ham have never met FDA approval. This is mainly because some of FDA specifications are directly contrary to the equally stringent specifications in Spain required for the correct production of Jamon Iberico. Nevertheless, the US authorities eventually recognized some of the slaughtering and curing processes and legalized jamon Iberico though there are still some processes under contention. One of the most contentious rules by the US administration is for the removal of the black hooves which has traditionally been a trademark of Iberico ham. For this reason, many producers in Spain are now setting up standalone facilities for slaughtering and processing ham designed for the US market.

Jamon Iberico, or Iberico ham, is a gourmet ham that has a long and interesting history. The ham is produced under very stringent conditions in the dehesas of southwestern Spain. The above five points are some of the least known facts about jamon Iberico.

Featured images:
  • License: Image author owned

Zacarias Albuquerque is a tour operator based in Madrid. His tour packages often include sightseeing around the Dehesas, home to the Pata Negra, or black pigs, which produce the infamously rich iberico ham.

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