Jamon Iberico

Posted on Saturday, October 24th, 2009 at 10:42 am

The Dehesa

Many people consider Jamon Iberico, and particularly Jamon Iberico Bellota, to be the best ham in the world.  It comes from the region of Extremadura, as well as parts of Castilla y Leon and Andalusia, in western Spain.

The ham comes from Iberian pigs that have freely roamed the “dehesa,” a landscape blessed with cork trees, evergreens, and oaks.  The pigs graze on grasses, as well as mushrooms and hard herbs, such as rosemary and thyme.  This diet permeates the aroma and flavor of their meat.

Jamon Iberico Bellota is made particularly from pigs that are born in the spring.  Over the course of the montanera, the prime fattening period from November to January, these spring pigs eat mostly acorns (called bellota) that have fallen from evergreen and cork oak trees.  During the three months, a pig can gain 150 pounds or more.

I really, really wanted to learn more about Iberico ham while I was in Spain.  I also wanted to see where the famous pigs eat their acorns.  My wish came true when I had a very special opportunity to tour Fermin, the only Spanish company allowed by the USDA to export their ham to American soil.

Home of the Iberico Pig Home of the Iberico Pig

I took the bus from Salamanca to La Alberca, both in the region of Castilla y Leon.  It was an incredibly beautiful and surprising ride.  I was amazed at the wide open pastures.  Along the way, there were massive bulls with curled horns, stocky cows, flocks of sheep, and a few Iberian pigs.  From my bus window, the animals looked unchaperoned, free to roam as nature intended.

La Alberca La Alberca

When I arrived in La Alberca, the wooden beams on the buildings’ second stories made me feel like I had been transported back to Shakespeare’s time.  The stone crosses took me back even further.  La Alberca, it turns out, is a well-preserved medieval village.  I wandered the town in awe for an hour, until it was time to head to Fermin for my tour.

An Iberico Pig (Pata Negra) in La Alberca An Iberico Pig (Pata Negra) in La Alberca

Me, with an Iberico Pig! An Iberico Pig (Pata Negra) in La Alberca

As I started towards Fermin, I ran into a very large pig.  I recognized him immediately from an episode of Jose Andres’ Made in Spain.  Each summer, it is tradition that one pig is chosen to roam the town of La Alberca.  It is fed by the community until winter.  Then, ironically on the Feast Day of St. Antonio, protector of animals, the fattened pig is raffled off, providing the winner with a good amount of food.

(This particular pig was so large that it took him ten steps to go from standing to lying on the ground.  When he was finally down, he grunted and closed his eyes, allowing me a quick photo op.)

Fermin Touring Fermin

Iberico Ham (Not Yet Aged) Jamon Iberico de Bellota

For sanitation reasons, visitors are not typically permitted to visit Fermin.  I am very lucky; they made a special allowance for me as a culinary student.  (They made sure I was properly sanitized before heading into the facilities.)  Everything happens in one building: slaughtering, processing, aging, and packaging.  I was able to tour it all, walking through each step of creating Jamon Iberico, as well as chorizo and lomo.

Jamon Iberico Bellota

Back in Salamanca, I slowly savored my first Jamon Iberico Bellota, along with the last of my Artequeso Manchego.

Upon first inspection, I was struck by the intense red of the bellota, as well as its thorough white marbling.  It looked more like a great steak than what I’ve known as pork-the-other-white-meat.  Holding the meat to the light, it was a stained glass spectrum of reds, oranges, and pinks.  The outer circle of flesh was deep maroon while the center was more of a sunset orange.  When I touched the meat, it coated my fingers with a silky layer of fat.  Like baby oil, it felt clean.  Finally tasting the bellota, each slice was complex.  The outer edges were that maroon red because they were more dehydrated; they had aged closer to air.  This meat was slightly chewy and tasted intensely of ham and earth.  Conversely, the more subtle center of each slice was buttery soft; it tore easily with the gentlest tug of my teeth.  I could taste the sweet nuttiness of the acorns.  It was an adventure just to explore one slice of the world’s best ham.  I ate ten.

Jamon Iberico Bellota

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