What Is Jamón Ibérico?
Here's what you need to know about one of the world's most delicious hams.
When I see a platter of charcuterie, with all of its rosy glistening meats, I get a little bit of a thrill (not to mention hunger pangs). There is a glorious world of charcuterie to be had, from coppa and culatello to prosciutto and speck, but some of the best cured meat in the entire world is Spain's spectacular jamón ibérico from Andalucia. It’s glossy, beautifully marbled and tender, with a nutty, savory flavor that’s unsurpassed.
I recently sat down with the folks from Cinco Jotas, who produce outstanding jamón. Their prized Ibérico pigs live fairly idyllic (albeit short) lives, wandering freely during their two-year lifespan. Acorns are the cornerstone of an Ibérico pig’s diet, as well as grass, roots, berries, mushrooms, and wild herbs—all of which contribute to the delicious flavor and marbling that is so coveted. It turns out that marbling of the meat is purely genetic and that’s a key factor in deciding which pigs to breed. In fact, Cinco Jotas knows the parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents of every pig they raise. Because they walk so much in search of those acorns (upwards of eight miles every day), the pigs have distinctive skinny legs and feet—as well as cute little floppy ears. When the pigs find their acorns, they peel them with their lips and then spit the shell out, then keep roaming for more as they eat several pounds of food each day.
While it takes at least five years to produce Cinco Jotas’s jamón Ibérico, the pigs themselves take two years to reach full development, and the curing process takes a minimum of three years. Have you ever wondered what happens to the rest of these prize pigs once the leg is taken for curing? Well, the rest of the pig is pretty darned tasty too. Select chefs get to buy and serve the additional cuts. Some of the most delicious ones are the secreto (from the chest), the pluma (between the front of the loin and the shoulder), and the presa (shoulder).
Eating jamón Ibérico is reserved for special occasions in Spain. No other food is treated the same way. It’s said that you can tell the quality of a wedding by the ham they serve: the best weddings in Spain end at 5 a.m. with slices of jamón Ibérico served on crusty bread. A recent study in Spain is aiming to prove that acorn-food Ibérico ham raises your good cholesterol so it can actually be considered a health food. Amen to that.