With its ideal ratio of meat and fat the Iberico pig is considered one of finest breeds in the culinary world. Iberico pigs look very similar to a fat wild boar with a long snout and thin legs. They are often misnamed “Pata Negra”, which simply means black foot (and not all Iberico pigs have black hooves). Much of this breeds reputation has been built upon the Jamon Iberico Bellota (pronounced bay-o-ta, meaning acorn). Making Jamon Iberico Bellota is a precise traditional craft, and only half a percent of the hams produced in Spain each year carry the designation. These special pigs are raised in a protected forest in Western Spain called the Dehesa. The Dehesa looks like wilderness with ancient oak trees and open plains, but in actuality it has been maintained by humans this way for nearly a thousand years. For every one hectare (2.5 acres) only two Iberico pig may enter the Dehesa. This is the primary reason Bellota hams are the most expensive in the world, but it is necessary. There are three types of oak trees in the Dehesa “Holm”, “Gall”, and “Cork”. When mature each oak tree produces approximately 30lbs of acorns. During the “Montanera” period, October through January, when the pigs are fattening, they will consume 13 to 22 pounds of acorns per day. These pigs can add up to 3 pounds of meat and fat per day, and to be certified “Bellota” must double in weight by the end of the Montanera (usually peaking around 300 pounds). This acorn diet ripples the meat with fat and a deep nutty flavor. But don’t let fat scare you. The acorns actually replace 70% of the saturated lard with mono-unsaturated fat (like olive oil). This is very important because the final cured hams will be served at room temperature and mono-unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. Therefore, connoisseurs always slice Iberico hams with a knife (rather than deli slicer) so that a minimal amount of fat is lost on the blade and the rest can be enjoyed as it melts in your mouth. After the Montanera the pigs are rounded up, which is no small feat in the vast Dehesa, and brought to a holding pen near the slaughter house. To avoid stress which could affect the meat, the pigs are slaughter within hours of their capture. After slaughtering the hams are buried in sea salt from the flats of Cadiz. The hams cure in the sea salt for 1 day per kilo at a temperature of 41 degrees F. and 82% humidity. The salt is then washed off but continues to metabolized throughout the ham. Then the hams are moved to a traditional curing room monitored by a “Jamonero”. The Jamonero must regulate the atmosphere of the room by only adjusting windows. Humidity rages between 90% in the summer and 70% in the winter. Temperature rages from the 80′s in the summer to the 40′s in the winter. During this time the natural molds which vary from curing house to curing house develop over the hams. Just as with cheese, these molds will ultimately finish the flavor and texture of the hams. After three years the hams are finished and my even develop tyrosine crystals (which we find in Parmigiano Regiano cheese)
Jamon Iberico Recebo are very similar to Bellota, however they have been raised in plush pens and fed a diet of acorns and grains rather than roaming free in the Dehesa. These hams are usually about half the price of the Bellota and a great value.
In 2006 after nearly a decade and millions of dollars, Fermin became the first Spanish Iberico and Serrano ham producer certified by the USDA to export their hams to the United State.