Jamon Iberico Bellota: The World’s Best Ham is from Extremadura, Spain
The complex culinary history of Extremadura goes back through thousands of years of migrating and conquering peoples – Lusitanian, Celtic, Roman, Arabs, to name but a few, – who all brought their dishes and different techniques and sensibilities for making the dishes of those before them, to create an amazing mix of flavors. The one constant being the rich pantry of foods Extremadura is famous for. It’s beef, Pork, olives, fruits, vegetables, and cheese all rival the finest in the world for quality and taste.
The classic proof of the importance of Extremadura’s culinary history comes from the unlikely remains of the burned library of the convent of San Benito de Alcantara. After Napoleon’s forces conquered the region, reports of the loss of manuscripts hundreds of years old confirm that the Kitchen Recipe Book of the convent was saved from the fire by the French General Junot. He gave it to his wife where it soon became the talk of Paris. Convention has it that this Spanish book of recipes eventually became the foundation of classic French cuisine. Or, as the famed French Chef Auguste Escoffier claimed, this recipe book was “the best trophy, the only good thing France got from the Spanish Independence War.”
Having dropped that bomb on French culinary sophisticates, let’s return to the subject of the cuisine of Extremadura. In Spain, a PDO is a Protected Designation of Origin, meaning specific criteria must be met to use that designation – sources, aging, processing, and appearance are all controlled. This is true for cheeses, hams, olive oil, breeds of animals and agricultural products.
Chief among the world-renowned culinary products of Extremadura is ham – Jamon. Basically, there are three styles of Jamon – Serrano, Iberico and Iberico bellota. Serrano is made from any breed of pig in Spain. Iberico refers to cured hams of the Iberico breed, but not fed on acorns. Iberico bellota are cured hams of the Iberico pig fed on acorns. In Extremadura, there are two PDOs – Iberico Bellota and Bellota, which is acorn fed but not 100% Iberico.
To produce these high-quality hams, the pigs are raised free-range in the unique environment of Extremadura called Dehesa, a mix of fields and wild holm and cork oak trees.
While they can be fed corn and grain as they mature, during the last four months of their lives the best are fed only acorns. It is during this time, referred to as the Montanera, that they nearly double their weight to more than 350 lbs. To put that in perspective, it takes 15 pounds of acorns for each pound they gain. Because the acorns contain the same oleic acid found in olive oil, the pig’s fat is monounsaturated – good for you – just like olive oil.
Once the pig is of a size to be butchered, the lengthy curing process begins. First, there’s a prepping of the leg that involves some skin and fat removal leaving a distinctive “V” on the ham. It is then covered in salt and refrigerated in 98% humidity for several weeks. Then it is washed to remove the salt and put into a vice-like device that presses it into a typical ham shape.
After curing for 90 to 120 days, beginning at 2 degrees centigrade (35.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and 98% humidity, then slowly adjusted until it finishes at room temperature and humidity, hams are hung for one to three years in a well-ventilated, shaded room to finish curing. Hams from the pigs who were fed acorns take the longest time. During the whole process, the ham will lose 1/3 of its original weight.
Each ham receives a color-coded tag. White is the lowest and meant for any pigs, not fed acorns. Green is for 50% pure Iberian pigs, not fed acorns. Red is for 50-75% Iberian pigs fed some acorns. Black is for 100% Iberian pigs fed acorns the last four months of their lives. They earn the coveted designation Jamon Iberico Bellota which many believe to be one of the finest hams in the world.
And now you know why they cost so much. A typical ham could sell for more than $1000 and take, from birth to cured ham, about five years to produce. But, with one taste you’ll know they’re worth it. During a tasting, I learned that a bite-sized paper-thin slice at room temperature should rest in your mouth as the fat melts and the flavors build. Then chewing it releases the umami combination of nutty, sweet, succulent goodness with the mouthfeel of rich olive oil – delicious!