With the exception of the Moorish occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. Iberian ham has been produced and eaten in Spain since the time of the Roman occupation. Although tools, techniques and indeed the climate have changed over the centuries, the same basic principles apply to the production of Iberian Ham today as they did hundreds of years ago. This is an explanation of the production process.
Of course dry-cured ham is not unique. France, Italy and Germany, to name but a few all have their own versions. But the Iberian Ham is without doubt the King of the Castle. From the less expensive Jamón Serrano through to the Pata Negra and the sublime Jamón de Bellota there is no comparison anywhere in the world. It’s number one for taste, smell and texture and not only appreciated here in Spain, where the average Spaniard will consume almost five kg per year, but throughout the World it has an ever growing chorus of fans.
The production of Spanish Iberian Ham is a long and carefully maintained process subjected to the strictest quality control standards for food. In the early nineties the type of ham known as Jamón Serrano achieved the Denomination of Origin status represented by a label with an ‘s’ symbol in the shape of a ham. There are of course many producers of hams throughout Spain and it would be wise to purchase from producers who can demonstrate their adherence to the strict protocols related to the production the hams. Extremadura in Southwestern Spain is the region where the highest quality, Pata Negra and Jamón de Bellota are produced. Also in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, in a region known as Las Alpujarras top quality Jamón Serrano can be found. Trevélez is the place. Great ham and great trout in the highest recognised municipality in Spain (1486m).
The Different Hams
Which makes up 90% of the total production and is derived from the white pig such as Duroc, Landrace, Large White and Pietrain. These are generally fed on cereal based products and the curing process lasts from approximately 7 to 16 months.
Jamón Iberico or Pata Negra y Jamón de Bellota
Making up the remaining ten percent of production these products are of a much higher quality and are in great demand. Jamón Iberico comes from the Iberian Pig which is found in Extremadura and Southwestern Spain. There are certain differences within the Iberico family: firstly, we have Jamón de Bellota, the most sought after which comes from pigs fed exclusively on meadow grass and acorns; a pig fed on a mixture of grass, acorns and cereals is referred to as Jamón de Recebo and finally we have Jamón de Cebo, fed on grass and cereals.
Once cleaned the slaughtered pigs are cut in to the various pieces and the lengthy curing process can begin.
Firstly the pieces of ham are covered with a layer of salt and stored in specialized facilities maintaining a steady temperature of between 0ºC and 5ºC and a level of humidity of between 70% to 90%. The salting period can vary depending on the weight of the ham but does not usually last for more than two weeks. The aim of the salting process is to remove excess moisture and preserve the meat.
The hams are then washed and hung for up to 45 days to ensure the elimination of any remaining moisture and even distribution of the salt within the ham itself.
The following stage in the curing process is the transfer of the hams to drying halls which are specially design to let in the correct amount of light. In these areas the temperature and humidity are also maintained within certain criteria by using a natural ventilation process opening and closing the windows. This is an important stage in the curing process when the hams begin to give off their distinctive aromas and the fat disperses into the muscle tissue over a period of six to nine months During this period the hams should not be subjected to extreme changes in temperature. indeed, it is essential that the hams increase in temperature at a gradual rate in order to facilitate the curing process.
Finally we come to the maturing process where the hams are hung to dry in storerooms maintained between 15ºC and 20ºC and humidity at 60% to 80%. This final stage is when the hams acquire their distinctive smell and texture.
Once approved by the Bodega’s tester, the hams are ready to be packaged and sold. It takes approximately 3 to 4 years to produce a top quality Iberian Ham from the birth of the pig to the final testing and it’s subsequent sale. Enjoy!