Jamón Ibérico de Bellota
If you’ve been in the store recently you may have noticed a holiday addition to the meat case- at $150/lb the Jamón Ibérico de Bellota certainly catches the eye! So what’s the deal?
First comes the pig. The Ibérico is a black swine that has been bred in Spain for centuries. It’s a large animal with slender legs and a long snout. The thick layer of fat on the leg and through the muscles, allows the hams to be cured much longer the Jamon Serrano, or Italian prosciuttos.
The breed is not enough. “De Bellota” literally means “of the acorn” and the pigs whose legs are selected for this distinction finish their lives roaming free on the “dehesa,” oak tree studded pastures maintained around the Spanish villages. Rather than eating corn back on the farm these pigs forage for acorns and feed on the natural herbs and grasses of the dehesa. The pigs are crazy about acorns and can eat up to 10 kilos (over 20lbs) each day!
The pigs double in weight of the course of 3 to four months and in winter, once the pigs reach their desired weight they are slaughtered. The prized hams, still on the bone with the black hoof as an indication of the quality of the breed, are packed in salt for a few weeks. The salted hams are then hung in factories with windows open to the mountain air for 2 to 4 years!
This long curing period is possible because of the large amount of fat on the legs and also because of the antioxidant rich diet of the pigs. Over this time about half the weight is lost as the hams sweat through the summer and cool in the winter. The repetition of this cycle transforms the volatile compounds in the meat, the fats are changed to healthy mono-unsaturated fats high in oleic acid, and a veritable symphony of unparalleled flavors is created.
So you can come in and drool at the ham in our case, dark in color, deeply marbled, but better yet, buy a couple slices and experience for yourself, the sweet, nutty complexity as the fat literally melts in your mouth. I would argue that it’s well worth the price to taste the magic of this ham. Just one thin slice is enough to understand.
As an afterthought, if you need a reason beyond the remarkable flavor, the popularity of Ibérico hams has actually allowed for preservation of the dehesas, the rural pastures in Spain, in the face of pressures to develop the land for real estate. So by eating Ibérico you’re doing your small part to save the planet!