“This part, the biggest part, has more meat,” says Antonio Prieto, as he pinches the underside of my forearm, near my elbow. “And this part, the thinner part, where the nerves go, maybe it’s a bit stronger,” he continues, now pinching the skin on the inside of my wrist. Prieto, president of ASICI, the association that champions Jamon Iberico (aka Iberian ham) is drawing a parallel between my forearm and the leg of one of his beloved black pigs.
I might be put out at having my arm likened to a pig’s leg, if these weren’t Spain’s celebrity pigs. They can command a rider of an acorn-only diet, and they roam around in the dehesa of central and southern Spain and Portugal, which is basically a VIP area for pigs.
Such is the A-lister status of the Iberian Pata Negra, that Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez caused an uproar when he confused Jamon Iberico with Jamon Serrano which comes from Cerdos Blancos, intensively farmed white pigs raised on feed.
But all Iberian ham is not created equal. The quality depends on the pig’s diet, breeding, and lifestyle, while a plethora of labels aim to convey this information to the consumer.
A white seal indicates that the pig was reared on a farm and fed with commercial feed (Cebo), while a green seal conveys that it was reared in the countryside, and fed a mix of commercial feed and natural resources (Cebo de Campo). In both cases, the pig may be 100 per cent Iberian – or it may be a mixed-breed, eg its Iberian mother may have been bred with a 50 per cent Iberian pig (making it 75 per cent Iberian) or with a Duroc pig (making it 50 per cent Iberian).
Red and black seals means that during the fattening stage, the pig was fed on acorns (Bellota) and natural resources. However, the red seal indicates that the pig was only 50 per cent or 75 per cent Iberian, whereas the black seal confirms that the ham is from a pig that’s 100 per cent Iberian.
So the 100 per cent pure-breed, acorn-fed, Jamon Iberico de Bellota is the best of the best, right? “It’s a higher quality,” says Prieto, explaining: “With the white label, for example, the animal has had only ten months of life, whereas the black label has had between 14 and 17 months in the countryside, eating and moving freely, so it has more intense flavours and aromas.”
Should I specify where I want my ham from, depending on which bit I like best? “For normal people it’s really difficult to notice the difference, and you don’t cut a little bit from here and a little bit from there – it’s cut lengthwise, so you get ham from all the different parts at the same time,” says Pietro.
OK, but what’s so special about Jamon Iberico anyway? Why is it better than ham from peasant pigs? “Iberian ham is from a unique breed with intense colours, aromas and flavours that explode in your mouth, like a sixth sense we call umami!”
And with that, Pietro chucks a few packets my way, and tells me how I can enjoy it at home:
Pop your cork
Jamon Iberico has often been cured for four or five years, so it needs a wine that matches the intensity of its flavour. A strong, red, reserve wine works best, but it’s also amazing with Cava and Champagne because of the bubbles – when you combine the fizziness with Jamon Iberico, you get an explosion in your mouth. Lager is good too – Spanish, of course!
Normally in Spain, you eat Jamon Iberico by itself before a meal. It goes well with a strong, dry, cured cheese, so you can serve slices of each – but you would never throw the two together in an omelette! Spanish bakeries are working to create a bread that goes well with Jamon Iberico, but if you are in London you can put it in a baguette by itself (no butter, no cheese) that is perfecto!
Don’t sweat it
Keep your Jamon Iberico in the fridge, but take out the packet and open it two hours before you plan to eat it. In this time, the aromas will start to emerge, and the fat will start to sweat as it gets closer to reaching its ideal temperature of 24 degrees, which is similar to the ideal temperature of the red wine you may drink it with. When you’ve finished, put it back in the fridge, and do the same next time you want to eat it.
Keep the fat on
Even if you’re under doctor’s orders to cut the fat off your bacon, you can enjoy the fat of Jamon Iberico without feeling guilty. It’s high in oleic acid (a monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acid) which is known to lower cholesterol. Research suggests that the fat of cured Jamon Iberico that’s been fed on acorns is the most “cardio-healthy” of all animal fats, and may even be healthier than some fats of plant origin. Science aside, the fat gives Jamon Iberico its taste, and some people prefer it to the meat!
Samantha Rea can be found tweeting here