What is Jamón Ibérico?
Ibérico cured meats from Spain are prized in the world of specialty food. There is a history that directly connects these products to the regions in which they are produced and the traditional methods of production that are employed.
The producer Embutidos y Jamón Fermin is located in a small mountainous village located just South West of Salamanca called La Alberca. The company has been operating since 1956 and while maintaining the most traditional methods of production, they have also been constantly updating their facilities to meet the rigorous requirements of the FDA.
These wonderful meats are the product of the Ibérico breed of pig. This breed is an ancient cross between pigs that originated in North Africa, migrated to the Iberian Peninsula with the Phoenicians and mated with the wild boars indigenous to the area.
The primary pork product of infatuation in Spain is Jamón Ibérico. While there are other amazing products produced using the meat of the Ibérico pigs, it is only the hind leg that produces the Jamón. Jamón Ibérico constitutes only about 5% of the total Jamón production in Spain.
Within Spain there are four DO classified areas for production of Jamón Ibérico:
- Dehesa de Extremadura
- Jamón de Huelva (a.k.a. Jabugo)
- Jamón los Pedroches
The Jamón from Fermin are from within the Guijuelo DO and are classified according to the diet of the pigs and the ultimate qualities of the fat in the Jamón. As in the other Jamón Ibérico DO, the bloodline of the pigs used to produce the Jamón must be at least 75% Iberico and a maximum of 25% Duroc-Jersey breed. Although commonly equated with the Ibérico breed, the colorful term pata negra (black foot) is not a certain indication of the Ibérico breed. Some Ibéricos do not have black hooves and some pigs within other breeds do have black hooves. While in general accurate, it is not a certain way to determine the meats of the Ibérico breed.
Within the Guijuelo DO classification are two levels of quality:
- Jamón Ibérico de Bellota is the highest level of quality and represents only about 10% of the total Jamón Ibérico production. It is particularly expensive to produce because during the three to four month fattening period, each pig is given at least an acre of its own on the wooded pasture known as the Dehesa. The most important feature of this classification is that during the months of fattening, these pigs eat nothing but the acorns that have fallen from the holm oak and cork oak trees that populate the dehesa. Within these months (known as the Montanera) a pig will put on between 40% – 60% of its final weight of about 350 lbs at slaughter which takes place traditionally in the first few weeks of January.
- Jamón Ibérico de Recebo (or simply Jamón Ibérico) is the second level of quality that comes from the pigs that have not fattened up sufficiently during the months of the Montanera. These pigs also ate acorns during that period, but once the acorns are gone, they are fed on a diet of barley, grains and grasses until they are slaughtered in the spring.
Methods of Production
Jamón Ibérico is produced in much the same way as the more common Jamón Serrano and consists of two basic processes.
1. After the pig is slaughtered, the hams are trimmed, cleaned and covered with sea salt to cure. The quantity of salt depends on the weight of the leg and the amount of fat present. The amount of time the leg cures is roughly 1 day for each kilo of weight or about 2 to 3 weeks.
2. Once the hams have completed the cure, they are washed to remove the salt and they are hung to air-dry in a building that is open to the natural breezes. This process takes a minimum of 18 months and depending upon the quality of the leg, can take up to five years.
Once fully aged, the leg will have lost between 30% to 50% of their original weight and the exterior fat will have turned a deep golden color while the exposed meat will have natural molds that have helped develop the distinctive flavors in the meat.
The qualities of the Ibérico meat are easily recognizable. The first and most striking difference is the amount of marbling you can see in the meat. The Ibérico breed itself is known for amazing distribution of fat throughout its meat, but those Ibérico that are fattened on acorns have especially luxurious meat and, as might be expected, a hint of nuts in every bite. When you taste the Ibérico meats, the flavor is quickly transported to your palate as the silkiness of the meat breaks down.
In Spain, the Ibérico de Bellota pigs are known as four legged olive trees because of the high levels of Oleic Acid that is a constituent part of the fat in the meat. Oleic Acid is the same fat found in olive oil and is known for its promotion of HDL or “good” cholesterol while also reducing LDL or “bad” cholesterol. Because of these high levels of Oleic Acid, the fat in the Jamón will readily melt at room temperature which characteristic sets it apart from other Jamón.
Ibérico Cured Meats
Salchichón Ibérico is a traditional salami made with a blend of salt, nutmeg and black and white pepper. The Chorizo Ibérico is a slightly softer dry cured sausage which has a pronounced smoky flavor resulting from the pimenton used in the spice blend that also includes salt, garlic, oregano and olive oil.
The Lomo Ibérico de Bellota is the loin of the Ibérico de Bellota that has been cured and rubbed with a mixture of salt, pimenton, olive oil, garlic, nutmeg and oregano. As with the Jamón Ibérico, the lomo is a large section of meat that clearly displays the beautiful swirl of white fat that is indicative of the Ibérico de Bellota.