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What makes jamón ibérico the best ham in the world?

It’s as much a part of the Spanish way of life as Jerez and Rioja, but not all jamóns are created equal. Fiona Beckett delves deep among the acorns to get the lowdown

Words by Fiona Beckett

Photography by Deborah Wastie

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There are four different grades of jamón ibérico, depending on breeding and rearing, and they vary wildly in quality

Anyone who has been to Spain will know that not a day passes without being offered a plate of jamón. So deeply rooted is it in Spanish food culture that it is genuinely regarded as a seasoning rather than meat. I was once at a bodega in Rioja where they were making minestra, the local spring vegetable stew, for some vegetarian guests, even though it clearly contained diced ham. When I pointed this out, they looked at me incredulously. Si, they said with a shrug, as in, ‘What’s the problem?’

Well, vegetarians look away now, because, sadly – unless you’re lunching obliviously at Rioja bodegas – you’re missing out. While most Spanish ham, of course, is serrano (originally referring to mountain ham but later adopted as an all-embracing generic term), the country is also home to what I believe (sorry, Italy) to be the best ham in the world: jamón ibérico.

jamon with olives and figs
The depth of flavour in Jamón ibérico is unrivalled, says author Maria José Sevilla: 'There’s no ham like it'

‘The flavour is unique – there’s no ham like it,’ claims Maria José Sevilla, author of Delicioso: A History of Food. ‘It’s the depth of flavour, the complexity in the mouth and the level of umami that comes through,’ rhapsodises Owen Morgan of Cardiff- and Bristol-based Bar 44.

As opposed to serrano, which comes from white pigs found anywhere in Spain, ibérico comes from pigs reared in the woodlands of the southwest, in the provinces of Andalusia, Extremadura and Salamanca. During the montanera (final fattening phase), they gorge on 6–8kg of acorns a day, which sounds, well, piggy. Sevilla, however, insists that pigs have a refined palate – so refined that they eat little flowers between each mouthful to cleanse and sharpen their palate. ‘They can even differentiate between sweet and less sweet acorns,’ she adds.

Why are acorns so important? They create the melting intramuscular fat that suffuses the ham with its sweet, nutty flavour

So, why are acorns (the bellotas from which the hams get their name) so important? They create the melting intramuscular fat that suffuses the ham with its trademark sweet, nutty flavour. And that’s healthier than it sounds. Acorn fed pig fat is high in oleic acid, which has similar beneficial health properties to olive oil. As the saying goes, Quien toma vino y jamón no padece del corazón (‘Whoever consumes wine and ham will not suffer from heart problems’). That may be a shade hyperbolic, but it does seem to have some validity, according to a study carried out at the Hospital Juan Ramón Jiménez in Huelva (admittedly in collaboration with the ham producer Cinco Jotas), in that it increases the plasma levels of good cholesterol and reduces bad cholesterol.

acorns jamon
Although acorns are important in the making of jamón ibérico, not all pigs subsist on the nuts

The broader picture, though, is slightly more complicated, since not all Iberian pigs are purebred, and not all subsist on acorns. There are four grades of jamón ibérico. Most of the experts I talked to dismissed the basic white grade, cebo, which permits the pigs to be intensively reared and have no acorns in their diet. The highest grade, on the other hand, is the purebred 100% ibérico de bellota (which carries a black label), where both parents have to be Iberian pigs. In between are the ibérico de bellota (red label), which can come from a crossbred pig that may have only one Iberian parent but has the same acorn-rich diet as the black-label jamón; and the cebo de campo ibérico, which again can be a crossbreed and, although reared outdoors, may also have its feed supplemented by grains and greens.

jamon and olive in bowl
iberico pigs
A large range of Iberico pigs make jamón ibérico, and crossbreeding can be an advantage too

To further muddy the waters, cebo de campo can cover a range of animals – from those that are kept outside for a month, to those that graze outside all year round. David Menendez of Spanish foods importer Mevalco explains: ‘Crossbred is not necessarily a disadvantage. Duroc pork adds more marbling, which creates a juicier ham that doesn’t dry up as quickly. If I was catering for a big event, I wouldn’t go for 100% ibérico. You sometimes get pigs that don’t quite make the grade for a red label in terms of the weight they’ve put on or the amount of acorn oil in their fat, and these sell as cebo de campo but are basically of ibérico de bellota quality – a bit like a declassified wine. A good serrano ham is better than a poor ibérico one.’ All the more reason to make friends with your ham supplier.

It’s also the case that acorns are a crop like any other and that some years are better than others. Given the amount that acorn-fed pigs have to consume during the montanera, when they have to double their body weight, they need access to a lot of acorns, often travelling several kilometres a day to find them. And the strict requirements of the DOs mean that a farmer may have to reduce the number of pigs he can fatten to ensure they have enough feed. Each pig in the black and red categories needs to have 10,000 sq m (one hectare) of pasture. ‘That’s as free range as you’re ever going to get,’ says Morgan, with a laugh.

iberico pigs in pasture
Iberico pig pasture is 'as free range as you’re ever going to get,' according to Owen Morgan of Cardiff- and Bristol-based Bar 44

The curing and ageing processes also vary, with cheaper hams spending less time maturing than more expensive, highquality ones. Less dense shoulders (paletas) are also aged for shorter time than legs. Although producers can now control temperature and humidity mechanically, many still prefer to follow traditional methods. The legs are salted for one day per kilo of weight, then washed and left to dry and hung in open sheds, where the windows are opened and closed to regulate the temperature and humidity. Then they are moved to a slightly warmer, more stable environment for the asentamiento, or settling period, which lasts up to four years and develops the depth of colour and complex palate of flavours that are so valued by Spanish consumers. ‘Every stage counts. It is quite possible for the ham from a great animal to be spoiled by poor practice, while that from an ordinary animal can be immensely improved by diligent attention to detail,’ writes Monika Linton in her magisterial book Brindisa.

jamon, bread, figs and olives
A deep crimson colour and a delicate marbling of fat is what you're looking for in top jamón

Apart from the grade and the age, what else should you look for when you buy ibérico ham? ‘In the best vintages, a ham will have a deep crimson/purple colour and a delicate marbling of fat, with a smooth silky texture that melts on the tongue,’ says Linton, who advocates asking for a sliver of ham to be cut for you and then warming it between your fingers; the fat should become meltingly soft. Hams from the more northerly production areas tend to age longer and be less salty than those from the south, she adds.

Hand-cut ham is always considered preferable to presliced and vacuum-packed ham, not least because it’s served at the right temperature. (If you have some in the fridge, you need to remove it at least 30 minutes before serving it. Linton would argue four to five hours.) There’s a real art to the slicing, which, in the best bars and restaurants, is done by a highly trained cortador who will take ham from different parts of the leg to show off its different flavours. (There’s even a name for the knife: the cuchillo jamonero.) The art is in slicing the ham sufficiently thinly for the fat to virtually melt on the tongue. ‘It’s a really professional, proper piece of art. And that is what you pay for,’ says restaurateur José Pizarro. ‘In exceptional hams, experts sometimes claim to identify anything from 70 to 120 different aromas – from fresh hazelnuts, crisp apple and sweet melon, to flowers, butter and grasses,’ says Linton.

jamon over a bowl
A skilled cortador will slice the ham sufficiently thinly for the fat to virtually melt on the tongue.

Of course, the big ham event of the year is Christmas, when every Spanish household has at the very least a generous supply, if not a leg. ‘On 24 December, there are two things that are never missing: plates of ibérico and mariscos (seafood), plus, of course, a glass of Fino or Manzanilla. It’s very, very important,’ says Sevilla. ‘A huge leg of ham is the best thing to give as a gift. It might be part of a hamper, but it would be wrapped in coloured cellophane and would always be the most beautiful thing in the basket – a sign of the wealth and generosity of the giver.’ That last element is worth noting. One thing chefs and experts all agree on is that you can’t do ham on the cheap. Avoid those cut-price supermarket offers, and instead look for the labels and certification – and if you’re buying a leg of what purports to be jamon ibérico, make sure you can see that black hoof. And maybe keep it out of the vegetarian stew.

Five drinks you might not have thought of pairing with ibérico

  • Vintage Champagne: Vintage Cava might be the more obvious choice, but the leaner, more austere character of Champagne works even better.
  • Dry Palomino: Dry wines from the grape used to make Sherry have the nuttiness of Fino without the intensity.
  • Dry Oloroso Sherry: Again, you may be more used to Fino Sherry with ham, but dry Oloroso can be stunning – especially with ib rico de bellota.
  • Young Garnacha: Fresh, juicy, modern styles of Garnacha work really well – just as Beaujolais does with charcuterie.
  • Sake: If Fino, why not sake? With all that umami going on, it has to be worth a try.

Where to buy and eat good Spanish ham

  • Brindisa: Hand-carved ham is available from Brindisa’s London shops, tapas bars and restaurants. Visit brindisa.com for sliced ham. They also sell hand-carving sets.
  • José Pizarro: You can buy ham from one of the best-known producers, Cinco Jotas (5J), at Pizarro’s restaurants and website: shop.josepizarro.com
  • Bar Tozino: Located in London’s Maltby Street, Bar Tozino has five or six hams on the stand at any one time. tozino.co.uk
  • Mevalco: This Bristol-based Spanish importer mainly supplies Spanish bars and restaurants but also sells direct. mevalco.com