5 Keys to Understanding Acorn-Fed 100% Ibérico Ham
Acorn-Fed 100% Ibérico ham brings together history, tradition, excellence and Spain’s singular terroir in a product that is as unique as it is utterly bewitching.
Spain’s famous jamón (cured ham) is known all over the world, if only by its sterling reputation. For those who have been lucky enough to try it—either here in Spain or in one of the many international markets to which it is exported—it’s an experience not easily forgotten, nor would you ever want to.
Despite the generally high quality of Spanish jamón, not all versions are created equal. The true jewel in the crown is a gastronomic treasure of the rarest and most wonderful variety: acorn-fed 100% ibérico ham.
Considered the highest quality Spanish ham there is, it is made from the pure-bred Ibérico pigs that are native to Spain (and a few small areas in Portugal). But the keys to understanding this singular product go beyond its origins, and must take into account the rearing of the pigs, the traditions and techniques that go into making the hams, the qualities and characteristics of the hams themselves, and the best ways to enjoy them. We hope that this brief guide to acorn-fed 100% ibérico ham will both give you an overview of this delectable product and make you hungry for more.
1. The origins of the species
Acorn-fed 100% ibérico ham can be made only from pure-bred Ibérico pigs. These large, blackish animals have long slender legs and the characteristic black hooves, or patas negras, of the breed.
The only grazing species of pig that remains in Europe, the Ibérico pig is native to the natural pasturelands (dehesas) that cover large expanses of central and southwestern Spain in the provinces of Salamanca (Castile-León), Cáceres and Badajoz (Extremadura), Huelva and Córdoba (Andalusia), and Toledo and Ciudad Real (Castile-La Mancha). These natural ecosystems, dotted with holm oak trees and known as the deshesa, provide grasses, grains, tubers, insects, and wild mushrooms, as well as an abundance of acorns or bellotas, that Ibérico pigs consume in great quantities. All of this sets the Ibérico bellota hams apart from other categories of cured pork products.
2. Nutty goodness
During the last several months of the rearing period—a stage known as the montanera—the pigs are left to roam freely through the dehesa, consuming vast quantities of these sweet and nutty acorns. Each Ibérico pig forages on approximately three to six hectares (7.4 to 14.8 acres) of the dehesa in its lifetime.
This roaming habit, along with the fact that Ibérico pigs are naturally able to store fatty deposits in their muscles, makes their meat particularly moist with a firm texture, and yields its prized, nutty flavors and aromas.
3. On the make
Making an 100% jamón Ibérico from start to finish can take several years, from rearing the pigs to curing the ham in drying houses. Although the diet of the pigs is of supreme importance, other key factors that determine the characteristics of the final product include the dehesa landscapes, the surrounding climates and altitudes of the drying houses, and the traditional production methods that link each region’s products inexorably to their specific place of origin.
There are four Protected Designations of Origin for Ibérico ham. These are PDO Valle de los Pedroches in Córdoba (Andalusia), PDO Guijuelo in Salamanca (Castile-León), PDO Dehesa de Extremadura in Extremadura, and PDO Jabugo in Huelva (Andalusia).
4. It’s on the label
In recent years, a universal labeling system has been implemented by the Spanish government, designating the different categories of cured Spanish ibérico ham, with the two main factors being the breed of the animal and, even more significantly, the way it was raised. The top category, black label ham, is used for acorn-fed 100% Ibérico ham from pure-bred Ibérico pigs raised on acorns. Additionally, the laws stipulate that the terms dehesa and montanera are reserved for the highest category of 100% jamón Ibérico de bellota.
5- Ham for your heart
Several prestigious studies have been carried out by Spanish research centers in recent years confirming the various health benefits of consuming Ibérico ham. Among them was a clinical study carried out by the Hospital Juan Ramón Jiménez in Huelva in collaboration with the company Cinco Jotas, which demonstrated that 100% jamón Ibérico de bellota is beneficial to cardiovascular health because it increases the plasma levels of good cholesterol and significantly reduces bad cholesterol. Other benefits relate to the oleic acids—monounsaturated fats— found in acorn-fed Ibérico ham due to the pigs’ acorn-rich diets.
Just more reasons to relish this Spanish gastronomic treasure!
Text: Adrienne Smith / @ICEX
Photos and videos: @ICEX