As many tourists to Spain know, Spain has a long and adoring relationship with ham. Jamón Iberico, Spanish for Iberian ham, is one of Spain’s most recognizable foods and one of the world’s most prestigious cuts of meat. Distinguished by its unique marbling, jamón Iberico is coveted for its savory flavor and smooth buttery texture.
But what exactly makes this highly sought-after ham so impressive? The answer lies in its exclusive production methods and origins in the Iberian Peninsula. Read on for the storied history of this prized ham and why everyone wants a taste of it.
Related Article: Jamón Serrano vs Jamón Iberico
What is Jamón Iberico?
As ham goes, jamón Iberico is considered the best you can get. The Spanish cured pork leg is often likened to Italian prosciutto. But while prosciutto is frequently used as an ingredient to liven up various dishes, jamón Iberico is eaten strictly on its own.
Jamón Iberico is made exclusively from black Iberian pigs native to the Iberian Peninsula, which comprises Spain and Portugal. Portugal produces its own version of the product known as Presunto Iberico.
The Iberian pigs from which the ham is made are fed a strict diet, contributing to the ham’s luxurious texture and flavor and high price tag—the most expensive jamón Iberico in the United States comes in at a whopping $1,400 for one leg of ham. The ham’s high fat content allows it to be cured for a more extended period, giving the final product a deeper, more complex flavor and a subtle, irresistible sweetness.
Jamón Iberico is produced under stringent guidelines. According to Spain’s regulations, Iberico ham must be made from pure-breed or cross-bred pigs with at least 50 percent Black Iberian in their ancestry. Strict adherence to this traditional lineage makes jamón Iberico unlike any other of its counterparts.
How is Jamón Iberico Served?
In Spain, jamón Iberico is always eaten on its own so that you can enjoy all of the flavors created by centuries-old traditions. But that’s not to say you can’t enjoy it alongside some of your other favorite foods.
Jamón Iberico is typically sliced very thin, making it a wonderful addition to any charcuterie board. Because the ham is so packed with flavor, there’s no need to cut a thick slice to enjoy all of its depth and complexities. For the best experience, jamón Iberico should be served at room temperature, as it allows the unsaturated fats in the meat to warm and melt in your mouth.
Iberico Ham History
Jamón Iberico’s history technically spans millennia and the salt-curing process used to make the ham has been in use for centuries. It was first started to protect the meat from growing bacteria and to lengthen its lifespan.
Jamón is thought to have been introduced to Spain by ancient Romans, but it likely became a Spanish staple during the 15th century, when Christianity was reintroduced into the country. With harsh laws encouraging Jewish and Muslim conversion to Christianity, pork including Iberico ham became a symbol of Christian Spain.
Nowadays, jamón Iberico has few ties to the Christian church and is instead a symbol of Spanish heritage found throughout the entire country.
Jamón Iberico de Bellota
There are four grades of jamón Iberico, and Jamón Iberico de Bellota is considered the finest of them. Bellota is Spanish for acorn, referring to the diet of acorns that the free-range pigs feast on to make this best-of-the-best ham.
Jamón Iberico de Bellota has a more pronounced sweetness, accompanied by distinct earthy, floral, and nutty flavors. Like any jamón Iberico, the Bellota variety is high in fat, giving it a mouth-watering texture.
Black label Jamón Iberico de Bellota, unofficially called “pata negra” in reference to the Iberian pig’s black legs, is considered the highest quality Iberico Ham. It is produced strictly from purebred, acorn-fed Iberian pigs and aged 36 months. Only about five percent of all Iberian pigs meet these criteria, so anyone should jump at the chance to try black label Jamón Iberico de Bellota.
Some Iberico Ham at Socarrat
If you can’t make it to Spain, come down to Socarrat for a taste of authentic jamón Iberico. While you’re at it, you can indulge in a variety of Spanish hams, including jamón serrano and other traditional Spanish foods like chorizo Iberico and Manchego cheese.