Jamòn Iberico de Bellota, aka Pata Negra, is rightly celebrated as the finest ham in the world, on a visual and a gustatory level. Jamòn Iberico comes from the Iberian pig, a free ranging swine that feeds on acorns. During the Age of Exploration, merchant explorers such as Christopher Columbus and Hernando de Soto transported Iberian pigs and their most prized attribute, the delicious cured jamon.
In order to have a portable and long lasting meat supply, Christopher Columbus had cured jamòn stored on his voyages of discovery to North America, plus brought Iberian pigs to the New World and let them roam around various islands in the Caribbean where he stopped, on Hispaniola in particular. Certainly, it can be assumed that Columbus and other merchant explorers ate jamòn, but since it was kept in storage, it served a larger purpose as protein and sustenance for the crew who had to do the most arduous work on the long voyages
How did it become so prized? The taste most likely but also for a very practical reason. Cured meat can be stored for long overseas trips and for flock migrations or “transumanza”, when shepherds need to eat quickly and deliciously and keep moving with the flock. The main ingredient in cured ham besides the pork is salt and salt’s historical role is as a preservative, aside from steering the meat away from blandness.
The Iberian pigs would not remain in storage when an explorer arrived at an island for a stop. They were allowed to roam and feed and breed, starting the spread of this pig breed beyond its native Iberia. On these tropical islands, such as Hispaniola in the Caribbean, the diet was not acorns or grass, but tropical plants and berries and fruits, a drastic change in diet.
Spanish explorers also made their way north to the Georgia coast in the late 16th century, and dropped off a small stock of Iberian pigs on the island of Ossabaw. Today they are still on the island and are bred in very small numbers by individual breeders in the southeastern United States. These Ossawan Island swine are visually similar to the Iberian pig: pointy athletic legs, long snout, pointy ears, but with a more bristly coat than the Iberian pig roaming around today in the dehesa near Salamanca. The Ossawan swine are smaller than their Spanish forebears due to adaptation to a marine climate and a non-acorn diet. According to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, the Ossabaw is classified as critical meaning it is at some risk of extinction. The total population is around 300 pigs according to ALBC estimates, comprising breeding programs on the mainland United States and Ossawa Island.
Despite the existence of the Ossawan pig, there is no clear link from the Iberian black pig, the Pata Negra, to any breed in the Americas that is consumed for meat. There are heirloom breeds like the Black Berkshire/Kurobuta and Red Wattle that are sold by niche meat companies and appear on the menus of a small handful of high-end restaurants, but they are descendants of pigs native to the British Isles and Japan, not the Iberian peninsula. Undaunted, tastemakers like Mario Batali, owner of Bar Jamòn in New York City, are chomping at the bit to put Pata Negra on the menu. Only last year imports were approved by the United States Department of Agriculture, and the first jamòn will place pata onshore in mid-2007.