World’s Finest Ham?

Text by Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Spaniards will tell you--and most non-Spaniards agree--that the finest ham in the world is unquestionably the dark red, almost mahogany-colored jamón iberico or jamón de bellota from southwestern Spain. It’s a product that results from a combination of a unique breed of swine, the Iberian black pig, with the methods used to raise the animals, plus a long, slow curing process that converts the hog's hindquarters into these extraordinarily savory hams.

Ask for jamón iberico in a good tapas bar anywhere in the country and here is what you will be served: thinly sliced (nearly, but not quite, paper thin) rashers of ham, carved off the bone by a master of the art, laid in a circle of dark rosy petals curled around a platter, each slice visibly interlayered with fat and lean, studded with tiny white crystals of protein, and surrounded by an unctuous and deeply flavorful rim of creamy ivory fat. Taken as it usually is with a glass of chilled dry fino sherry, jamón iberico, jamón de bellota, jamón pata negra (it is called all these) has a taste that is both rich and dry, as nutty as Spanish almonds or Spanish sherry, sweet and salty at the same time, a flavor that is almost indescribably mouth-filling and deeply satisfying.

Possibly the most important element in producing this exquisite ham is the breed of pig itself, for the cerdo iberico, or Iberian pig, is an ancient swine, high-legged, narrow-snouted, dark-skinned, an incredibly elegant beast that makes ordinary garden variety white pigs look like so many . . . well, swine. Spaniards call the breed autochthonous, meaning it's been around on the Iberian peninsula for as long as anyone can remember, and possibly a good deal longer. But it, or its near relatives, existed in other parts of the pork-eating Mediterranean as well, in southwestern France (the porc noir gascon, which is almost extinct) and Italy (also almost extinct except for the related cinta senese, now cultivated as a rare breed, and the the nera parmensa, the black pig that was originally—but is no longer— used for making Parma ham).

At one time, ibericos were the standard Spanish breed and occupied the entire Iberian peninsula, but in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they were replaced by international breeds like Landrace, York, Large White, and above all Duroc, all of which had a more profitable ratio of meat to fat but not, alas, such flavor. Unlike these inbred parlour pigs, the iberico is a tough animal and thrives in a semi-wild state in open woodlands where the grazing is rich and this contributes immeasurably to the flavor of the meat.

By the 1960s, these prize animals were perilously close to extinction. A combination of factors was behind their disappearance. Impatience with the old ways of doing things and the urge to be "modern," whatever that meant, afflicted many cultures, including our own, in those years. (That was the period when Spain began overbuilding "modern" high-rise blocks along the coasts to accommodate cheap package tours from northern Europe, a policy whose disastrous consequences will be felt for years to come.) And for long decades after the end of the Civil War, Spain was a very, very poor country, the poorest in Europe after Portugal. Quick, cheap, easy pork from white pigs made sense economically.

By the 1970s, the Iberian pig had disappeared from most of its original range, surviving only in environmental niches in the west of the country, in Estremadura and, to a certain extent, in the northwestern Huelva region of Andalucia and in Salamanca. And it is in these niches that we find the dehesas, extensive, often immensely ancient forests of evergreen and cork oaks, majestic trees that limn the hillsides of Estremadura and northern Andalucia, where herds of the distinctive, high-backed, dark-colored native breed still browse. To come across these shy, half-wild beasts, especially in midwinter with the low January sun slanting beneath the guardian oaks, lighting the mist that drifts upward from the bosky undergrowth, is to witness something fundamental, almost prehistoric, that takes us back to the dawn of Celto-Iberian civilization.

Hams from these pigs are notable for the marbling of fat that gives the flesh such a remarkably suave texture, the fat thoroughly penetrating, practically interwoven with the lean. The pigs themselves are not fat so much as big: Mature specimens, ready for slaughter, can weigh upwards of 350 pounds. But they don't look fat, at least in part because their long legs set their bellies well up off the ground. Moreover, these are pigs who know what a good work-out means. Turned out into the dehesa to forage freely on the roots, grubs and acorns (bellotas) of the forest floor for the last three to five months of their lives, Iberian pigs develop muscle and flavor at the expense of the soft, tender quality that marks, for instance, a fine prosciutto from Parma. Only an Iberian pig that has spent the last months of its life foraging in freedom on the dehesa is entitled to become a jamón iberico, according to the Denominación de Origen, the designation for a controlled appellation. During this time the pigs will add 30 to 50 kilos (66 to 110 pounds) to their weight, all of that extra weight coming from a tasty diet that adds deep and complex flavors to the meat.

The final element in creating one of these exquisite hams is the lengthy care and attention to which it is subjected from the moment of slaughter until the emergence of a well-aged ham 24 to 36 months later. The most ordinary commercial jamón serrano (mountain ham) is cured only three months, although better serrano hams are kept longer. "A three-month cure?" said Manuel Galan with a dismissive shrug, "That's not jamón, that's carne salada, salt meat."

Galan is the owner of El Coto de Galan, a commercial ham producer in the town of Castuera in Estremadura. (When I say commercial producer, I mean someone who turns pork into ham by traditional curing methods but on a much larger, commercial scale--Galan told me his factory produces around 40,000 cured hams--jamónes--and shoulders--pelotas--from acorn-fed Iberian pigs each year.)

Apart from the length of time the hams cure, the process Galan showed me is not so different, up to a point, from that followed by other European producers of dry, salt-cured and aged hams like Parma or San Daniele hams from Italy, or jamón serrano, the Spanish ham that's made from ordinary white pigs. At Coto de Galan, iberico hams are liberally salted for 8 to 10 days, then washed and left to rest and dry for 15 to 20 days, after which they spend up to 15 months hanging in the secadero, or drying shed. Then comes a critical difference: From the secadero, the hams are transferred to a bodega, an enclosed, rather humid and cellar-like environment, where they spend another 6 to 12 months, depending on the size of the ham. At this stage a different kind of flavor develops, similar to what happens with the singular Italian ham called culatello, and this process, I think, is what gives jamón iberico its rarified flavor, best described by the Japanese term umami, an elusive concept of a kind of meatiness that is a mouth-filling pinnacle of flavor.

© 2017 The Culinary Institute of America