Use cookies

This website uses cookies to deliver superior functionality and to enhance your experience. Continued use of this site indicates that you accept this policy.

Foods and Wines from Spain. Everything you should know about Spanish food. >> Ibérico pig products
Foods From Spain History: Ibérico Pork Products, A Long Pedigree

Foods From Spain History: Ibérico Pork Products, A Long Pedigree

Almost all the world’s pig species (family Suidae) are descended from the genus Sus. Recent genetic studies indicate that there are ten species within this genus, one of which is the wild pig, or wild boar:Sus scrofa.

Origins of the Ibérico pig

Origins of the Ibérico pig

Almost all the world’s pig species (family Suidae) are descended from the genus Sus. Recent genetic studies indicate that there are ten species within this genus, one of which is the wild pig, or wild boar: 1.Sus scrofa.

There are four known sub-species of wild boar in the world: Sus scrofa cristatus (Asia Minor and India), Sus scrofa ussuricus (Northern Asia and Japan), Sus scrofa vittatus (Indonesia) y Sus scrofa scrofa (West Africa and Europe). Other genetic research has found that, contrary to belief hitherto, wild pigs started to be domesticated around 10,000 years ago, independently, in at least seven parts of Europe and 2.Asia, and that the present-day European varieties are barely interbred with the cristatus and vittatus varieties. Both the present-day wild boar (Sus scrofa Feres) and the domestic varieties, which include the Ibérico pig (known as Sus scrofa mediterraneus), are direct products of the domestication of the Euro-African boar, or 3.Sus scrofa scrofa.

Porcophobes and porcophiles

Cultural divide surrounds the eating of pork: the earliest Western civilizations (of Mesopotamia and Egypt) and the nomadic Hebraic and North African tribes despised the pig as being unclean and loathsome, source of many ills and forbidden by the Jewish and Muslim 4.religions. However, pork was a distinctive element in Greek 5.gastronomy, pigs’ meat, entrails and blood being eaten in various ways. References to pigs’ trotters are few, though, and the nearest mention of anything resembling present-day ham is a simple reference to ‘salted 6.hams’ by Egyptian Greek lexicographer Julius Pollux (2nd C).

Salted leg of pork appears to have been part of the diet in the Iberian and Italian peninsulas, Greece, Gallia and Central Europe well before the emergence of the Greek and Roman civilizations. While all had their nuclei of production, the best were said to come from the north of the Iberian Peninsula and the area to the north and south of the Eastern Pyrenees.

As early as the 1st century BC, Strabo(64BC-24AD) mentions the fine reputation of Cantabrian and Carretanian hams in his writings: “The Carretanians (are) of the Iberian stock; and among these people excellent hams are cured, rivaling those of Cantabria, and affording the people no small revenue.”

In other words, pork-eating was an established tradition among the Celtic and Iberian peoples of the Iberian Peninsula long before the Roman conquest (218BC) and the forging of trade links with Ancient Greece. Pigs played an integral role in many of their ancestral rituals and customs, as illustrated by votive offerings and stone effigies of boarfound in Castile and, indeed, still being unearthed there.

The Roman period: ham exports from Iberia

Around the 1st century AD, Roman trade in the Mediterranean area burgeoned, as did production and exports of pigs from Iberia. The pig featured frequently in the iconography and religious rituals of the Roman Empire, and the products obtained from it played an important role in Roman gastronomy.

The favored parts of the pig for preserving by salting were the loins, head, belly pork and legs or hams (perna,derived directly from the Latin, meaning 7.leg), this latter being considered the best cut except for sow’s udder and vulva (which came into the delicacy category). This is reflected in the prices given for different products in the Emperor Diocletian’s Ordinance of Prices (301AD) in which cow, goat and ram meat are quoted at 8 Denari per libra, pork at 12 denari, ‘best belly pork’ at 16 denari, sow’s udder and Hispanic (Carretanian) ham or shoulder at 20 denari, and sow’s vulva at 24 denari.

In the same ordinance of prices, a scribe would be paid, for a hundred lires, 25 denari and a barber, per costumer, two. But an attorney, for pleading a case, would earn a thousand 9.denari.

So these prices reveal that, despite the fact that increased supply and demand ‘democratized’ pork-eating considerably during the Roman period, salted pork leg remained an exclusively upper-class delicacy.

Pork in Medieval Spain

Pork in Medieval Spain

Pork was an established element of the Visigothic diet, into which the Roman culinary heritage was subsumed. The livestock breeding tradition was more than maintained: laws governing the use of the hillsides for grazing pigs, such as the one entitled De pascendis porcis were included in the Fuero Juzgo, the legal code of Castile. This ‘semi-wild’ pattern of raising pigs on wooded scrubland (dehesa) where they feed on acorns and beech-nuts, in combination with traits typical of the breed, is still what endows Ibérico ham with its distinguishing characteristics.

Muslims and Jews were forbidden by their religions to come into contact with pigs or to eat pork. Yet pig-breeding (in such areas as Extremadura and the Ronda mountains in Andalusía) and trade in the animals and their meat were so entrenched in the Iberian Peninsula that it was not unusual to find Muslim or Jewish merchants supplying pork to Mozarabs. Furthermore, renowned Jewish doctor, philosopher and rabbi Maimonides (1135-1204), a native of Cordoba (Al-Ándalus), actually recommended lifting the ban on pork-eating on the grounds that it was motivated by concern for public health rather than by theological conviction.

The traditional link between pigs and woodland in the Iberian Peninsula shifted somewhat in the 12th and 13th centuries as the Christian Reconquest edged southwards. There was an upsurge in livestock rearing in general, and the hillsides and dehesas (wooded scrubland) of Extremadura and Murcia became pig-raising territory.

Pork, and indeed meat in general, continued to be a luxury product. A peasant would consider himself lucky if he were able to include the occasional bit of offal in his pottage. At a stretch he might eat belly pork with his bread, and meat or sausages on special feast days. Ham was still something eaten only by the aristocracy, who usually ate their meat roasted or salted (as opposed to boiled, peasant fashion).

Tapas regulations

One of many legends preserved in the oral tradition concerning the origin of the Spanish custom of el tapeo (tapas-eating) dates it back precisely to the 13th century when it was made a legal requirement for tankards of wine or beer to be served accompanied by some item of food to prevent carriage drivers from getting drunk and having accidents. The food generally consisted of a slice of ham fat which was placed over the top of the tankard like a tapa (lid).

In the 14th and 15th centuries, a sequence of gradual transformations occurred in the wake of urban growth and the change of mentality wrought by the Renaissance. The humbler classes gained limited rights to keep small herds of pigs, and even in centers of population – urban as well as rural - families could keep a pig at home. During this period, too, zootechnic and gastronomic approaches to animal rearing began to be explored: Ibérico boars were crossed with wild sows; the Libre de Sent Soví (the first Spanish recipe book, written in Catalan) was published in 1342 and Enrique de Villena’s Arte Cisoria or Arte de Trinchar(The Art of Carving) in 1423. The few recipes they contain reveal that pork was not usually eaten fresh (with the exception of suckling pig), but rather salted, seasoned with spices, marinated, smoked, made into a sausage or fried in animal fat. Belly pork and cured ham continued to be the most important pork 10.products.

Pork in the Modern Era in Spain

Pork in the Modern Era in Spain

Within a predominantly rural population, ownership of a pig conferred social distinction and was, in peasant terms, a sign of wealth. Another major social indicator was who ate which parts of the pig: the poorest classes made do with offal (entrails, scraps), belly pork and lard. The rest of the meat was for the gentlefolk. Cured pork legs/hams (known in Spanish in those days as perniles) were considered the most desirable part of the animal and were eaten by the nobility and royalty.

Although pig and wild boar had always contributed to the diet at Court, ham was a particular favorite with some monarchs. Charles I (1500-1558) is said to have been a great snacker between meals on ‘lonjas de tocino de pernil de Algarrobillas’ (‘slices of Algarrobillas ham’ – which we now know as Ibérico ham). ‘Tocino de pernil’ contains cured lean meat, tastes delicious and used to be incorporated into salads, nibbled between meals, served as an aperitif (in the sense of a starter) and should not be confused with common tocino (lard) which was used for frying. Depending on its quality, tocino de pernil could be described by the epithets ‘gordo’,‘ordinario’ and ‘de Algarrobillas (or ‘de Garrobillas’), this last being considered the greatest delicacy.

Pigs go to America


In the late 15th and early 16th century, the pig was introduced into the Americas. Before that, ham had been a product that travelers took out there with them: this was because it was easily transportable and lasted well, whether salted or boiled in wine (the other most frequently used method of preserving hams at that period) and, furthermore, many of the Spanish conquistadores came from the Extremadura region. The Ibérico pig adapted well to the new territory, and very soon New Spain was exporting pork 11.products.

The Bourbon kings also enjoyed Algarrobillas hams. It is recorded that Philip V (1683-1746) ordered a supply of them around 1715, and that María Ana de Victoria (1768-1788) , sister of Charles III (1716-1788, King of Spain, Naples and Sicily), ate cured ham every day, on one occasion even ordering ‘a roll filled with ham’ (in other words, an Ibérico ham 11.sandwich) for dessert.

By the 18th century, Spanish hams were becoming internationally famous; by the end of the century they were being exported, in impressive quantities, to the whole of Europe and the Americas.

Pigs and ‘purity of blood’

One of the uses to which pork was put in Spain during the Modern Era deserves a corollary to itself. In its crusade to prevent convert Jews infiltrating the nation’s leading institutions; it was standard practice for the Spanish Inquisition to give them pork to eat as a test: in that it was forbidden by Koranic and Talmudic law, willingness to eat it was considered proof of ‘purity of blood’.

In 1560, Spanish humanista Benito Arias Montano (1527 – 1598) underwent communal “purity of blood” tests in preparation for admission into the Order of Santiago. Arias was reputed to be of Jewish convert origin; the story goes that one of the king’s secretaries, intending to discredit him, made him a gift of two hams, which Arias Montano rejected, declaring that he did not eat 12.meat.

The Spanish word for pig is cerdo, but the terms guarro, puerco, cochino and ‘marrano’ are also used, this last deriving from the Arab word muharram, which means ‘forbidden thing’. The same word was actually used to designate Jews who had been forced to convert to Christian faith, but were thought to continue practicing their Jewish religion and customs in private.

Testing for purity of blood by giving people pork to eat remained an enforcible option until the Spanish Inquisition was abolished in 1834.

Ibérico pig in the 19th century

As result of progress in the field of communications and in modes of transport, interchange between Spain and its far flung territories increased, and contact with France and England was speeded up; the first restaurants and eating houses appeared, and new food hygiene measures were developed (e.g. the 1869 laws regulating pig 13.slaughtering; the pig abattoir built at Madrid’s Puerta de Toledo) as were new techniques of preserving food. All this was matched by changes in food production and eating habits, and in social changes whose effects were also felt in the kitchen. The extremes of courtly and peasant cuisines were superseded by the ‘family cooking’ of the new middle 14.classes.

An effect of all this was an increase in pork consumption; even so, it remained a predominantly rural product, and hams continued to be a luxury food as far as most of the population was concerned. At around this time, some Asian species were imported into 15.Europe and Ibérico pigs began to be cross-bred with other European species that were cheaper to feed, heavier, yielded more meat and produced younger. This entailed a sizeable influx of Landrace, Large-White and Duroc-Jersey pigs; more productive in quantitative terms, these would gradually marginalize the native breed.

At international level, Ibérico ham’s reputation for excellence spread ever wider. Montánchez (Extremadura) hams took medals at several Universal Expositions towards the end of the 19th century. The 1880s saw the emergence of an incipient pork industry on the basis of a business established by Guijuelo-based muleteers dealing in hams collected from various localities in Zamora 16.province (Castile- León).

The 20th century: Ibérico pigs in crisis

The 20th century: Ibérico pigs in crisis

The historical and artistic evidence available to us reveals that the matanza - slaughtering and cutting up the pig and making pork subproducts - has survived virtually unchanged in its methods from Ancient Greece to the present day. Industrial production did not really being in Spain until the 1930s, and even then traditional methods and domestic matanzas would continue to co-exist with the industrial, and still do today, albeit on a token scale and motivated by cultural concerns.

Between 1910 and 1960 the national herd grew gradually in number, with much cross-breeding and new breeds being selected from among those of Spain, England and France. After 1950 especially, new species that gave more lean meat and less fat were introduced with a view to obtaining bigger and better 17.hams. Only very recently has pork become a meat genuinely available to all in Spain, a country that remained predominantly rural in the first three decades of the 20th century then suffered post-war shortages until mid-way through the century. The effects of increased production, the introduction of new breeds of pig that were cheaper to raise, and the arrival of cold storage combined to put ham on Everyman’s table.

Even so, many traditional ham producers still remained faithful to the Ibérico breeds and the virtually free-range grazing system (with a view to offering a higher quality, more expensive, product, again apparently destined to be enjoyed by the privileged few). However, these champions of the Ibérico pig very soon dwindled in number. In 1950, Ibérico pigs accounted for 40% of Spain’s national production; by 1985, the Ibérico share was down to 18.5%. This situation became known as ‘the Ibérico pig crisis’.

Ibérico pigs’ recovery

Since 1997, the census of extensively farmed Ibérico pigs has increased notably. Between 1997 and 2006, numbers went up from 946,000 head of pigs to 2,000,000, representing around 10% of the Between 2000 and 2007, production of Ibérico pigs increased by 20.50%. The various reasons for this increase include research findings that have declared Ibérico ham a healthy food; improved economic conditions and consequent increased buying power on the part of the public; and the setting of official quality standards for Ibérico ham.


Enrique García Ballesteros, (BA in Early Modern and Modern History and MA in Communication and Journalism) is a Spanish historian, writer and journalist. He has published over a hundred scientific and general interest articles on history and the media in prestigious magazines such as Historia National Geographic and La Aventura de la Historia. He has also authored biographies, interviews and book reviews for major institutions and the Spanish press. He is a regular contributor to the Spanish national daily newspapers El Mundo and Público (now online version only).

Research coordination: María del Carmen Simón Palmer, has a phD in history and is a research professor at the Spanish National Research Council, CSIC. She is a member of the governing body of the Real Academia de Gastronomía. Her published works include: La cocina de Palacio (1591-1932), (Castalia, 1997) and Bibliografía de la Gastronomía y Alimentación en España, (Trea, 2003).

Translation: Hawys Pritchard, M.A. (University of London) is a freelance translator currently based in Wales and Mallorca. Her work has appeared in various books and magazines (including Spain Gourmetour) that reflect her interest in food, wine, travel, art and architecture.

Photo credits

Origins of the ibérico pig
Wild boar stone figure, from the Vetones culture in Ávila (5th BC). Licensed under PD Creative Commons by Zarateman.

Pork in medieval Spain
Enrique de Villena wrote in 1423 a Treaty about the Art of Carving. Portrait from the Real Academia Nacional de Medicina.

Pork in the modern era in Spain
Still life with bread, ham, cheese and vegetables. Luis Meléndez (1716-1780) ©Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA. Margaret Curry Wyman Fund,39.40.

The 20th Century: ibérico pigs in crisis
Weighing an ibérico pig in the dehesa in the 1950's. Private collection of Emilio Rodríguez Beneyto.