Jamon Iberico de Bellota-Ecstasy in the Key of Pig

There is an ongoing debate about what constitutes Spanish cuisine and whether there really is such a thing. Spain itself is divided into regions that have varying degrees of autonomy and a strong culinary identity, such as Catalunya, Basque, Andalucia, and Galicia. Each region has its culinary specialties but there is one thing, not counting the protestations of animal rights activists and vegetarians, that unites normally fractious Spaniards: the worship of the pig and the sustenance it provides.

The secret to the unique taste of Jamòn Iberico or Pata Negra in food marketing parlance, starts with the acorns, or bellotas, that fall on the dehesa or grazing land between November and February. This three month period is known as the montanera, when the Iberian pigs eat mostly acorns from the holm oak due to the sweetness of the acorns and little else (blades of grass, occasionally herbs) the rest of the year. According to Real Iberico, acorns have great nutritional value due to the high content of glycides and oils, the latter playing a key role in the development of flavor during the curing process[1].

In order for the pigs to have enough acorns to eat, each pig has around four hectares of grazing room. This spaciousness means that pigs don’t have to fight over acorns, get to freely roam around and build the muscle mass in the hind legs that will eventually result in a sublime cured jamòn. From George Orwell’s The Animal Farm, we can in a humorous way guess that animals have thoughts and feelings, and that an animal that doesn’t have to fight over food and can roam at will is a happier, less stressed and ultimately tastier. If the animal is stressed or unhappy, it may not feed properly. But the good news is the pigs gain the majority of their final slaughter weight of 180-200 kilos during this period. They really do like acorns.

To the eye, a slice of properly cured jamòn is a deep red verging on light purple, with a stripe of fat on one end acting as a natural flavor seal, and longer thinner stripes of fat giving the meat a marbled appearance. To the touch, when rubbing a slice of jamòn between the index finger and thumb, a magic layer of liquid fat rises up: now is the time to place it on the tongue and begin to taste. Allow the fat to spread along the tongue to get a full, well-rounded appreciation of the jamòn’s unctuousness, then appreciate how it starts off pungent and salty and finishes deep and smooth, the palate redolent with barnyard and acorn oil notes. Justice is done only if the jamòn is tasted without the interference of bread or wine. If you must pair with a wine, a crianza or young Toro or Rioja is perfect, because the acidity of the wine cuts right through the fat and acorn flavors.

How does Jamòn Serrano compare with Jamòn Iberico?

Jamòn Serrano means literally “mountain ham”[2] and the taste is merely pleasant, an accompaniment to bread, manchego, and a glass of Rioja. It is not sensational enough to be tasted and appreciated on its own, and the flavor plateaus after initial contact with the mouth, unlike the opera in five acts that is Jamòn Iberico de Bellota. The appearance of Jamòn Serrano is a rosy red and is sliced in long elliptical strips like a French jambon. Ham world luminaries such as Andy Nusser, chef of Casa Mono and the adjacent Bar Jamòn in New York City[3], and overnight experts such as yours truly, will add one point in Jamòn Serrano’s favor: it is better than Prosciutto di Parma, even the longer aged version. The flavor is deeper, and reeks mellow of wine and spices and is extroverted where Prosciutto di Parma has a more salty versus sweet dynamic.

Demand for Jamòn Iberico

According to the Cambridge World History of Food, a census of Spanish pig production was taken around 1990, and one telling statistic is that the feral Iberian acorn eating pigs make up only 4% of the Spain’s pig population[4]. It does not take a math genius to figure out that the cured meat products from the hind legs of these pigs, generally the best for making cured ham due to fat deposits and tenderness, are the most valuable to connoisseurs and hence very expensive. As an example, let us imagine the area of the Iberian pig best suited for Jamòn Iberico de Bellota, the highest grade, represents 20% of the consumable meat on an Iberian pig. So 20% of that 4%, representing the percentage of Iberian pig in the overall population, is .80%, meaning that consumable Jamòn Iberico de Bellota is less than 1% of the consumable pork available in Spain. This is not scientific reasoning by any means, but simply to put in perspective one reason why Jamòn Iberico de Bellota is expensive.

The other reason is consumer demand. Currently there is a very high demand for Jamòn Iberico, but the demand started when Christopher Columbus stocked his ships with jamòn and today it is at a peak, with Jamòn Iberico de Bellota appearing on Ferran Adria’s menu at El Bulli near Barcelona, and at Joel Rubichon’s various Atelier casual restaurants throughout France. Additionally, starting in 2007, the first imports of Jamòn Iberico will arrive in the United States after the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved imports that were not previously allowed due to fears over swine flu outbreak[5]. Additionally, there are events meant to increase awareness, such as the Jamòn Iberico tasting at Salone Del Gusto/Terra Madre 2006. The goal of these consumers is simple and noble, to present a food product of the highest gustatory and visual quality, together, this is wishful thinking perhaps, to educate the taster about the raising, processing and need to safeguard the particular breed of pig.

However, this is one of the vexing dilemmas facing those charged with the protection of biodiversity, mainly, how can you increase awareness of the need to protect habitat and increase breeding of races, without bowing too much to the rising demand of the palates of elite consumers, which would in turn contribute to higher prices? Too much demand on the part of consumers would increase pressure on the small scale producers of Jamòn Iberico, and they simply cannot keep pace if they want to produce it in the proper artisan way.

The riposte, to the biodiversity purists, is that there is little purpose in protecting and safeguarding races of animals solely by breeding for breeding’s sake. Certain animals, such as the Iberian pig, are raised with the express purpose to feed humans, as crude and blunt as it sounds, and production must be kept up to meet, at least reasonably and not exaggeratedly so, consumer demand. To speak briefly of another Spanish pig, a producer of Cerdo Celto Iberico whom I visited in Galicia only has about twenty five pigs grazing on his land. He is having trouble breeding the pigs and only sells them to three stores in Galicia. Why celebrate biodiversity if better efforts are not made to breed, produce and sell and market the product? Awareness cannot be created without clever and “Slow” marketing, and at the very least without educating the palates of consumers.

Why Jamon Iberico is the finest ham in the world

There is no cured ham or cured meat that can compete with Jamòn Iberico on many different levels: gustatory, visual, touch, and of course, price. It is expensive for very good reason, just like Beluga caviar that comes from the belly of a sturgeon fished out of the Caspian sea. But a balance must be struck between consumer demand and what the jamòn producers can reasonably provide, so the Iberian pig can continue to be raised, cured, marketed and consumed in a sustainable fashion.


Barbara Quick said...

Your seductive prose is threatening the bastion of my rather recent turn to vegetarianism, making me think about the sensual pleasures I've been missing. O dangerous blogger!

Gotham City Insider said...

I hope you come back as a pig in your next life and you're slaughtered. No, maimed and then suffer before you are ultimately shocked and killed. You are a major pussy. Karma's a bitch. Keep eating that pork, pal.

Ellie said...

Loved your blog. It made my mouth water.

Julian said...

viagra online

buy viagra

generic viagra