More than one would draw a blank when challenged to explain Iberian ham, what it tastes like and what it can be compared with to somebody unfamiliar with it. If asking an ordinary citizen to describe its flavour following his gustatory experience, the safest would be to make reference to the lightly salty touch, to cured meat and to nuts. And it would fall short; it would be vague and incomplete. In this explanation it’s difficult to define the nuances that would be lost on those not particularly used to it. Because, what do you really know about Pata Negra? What makes it so tasty and long-lasting on the palate?
Our whole lives we have been taught in school thatthe four flavours are sweet, salty, sour and bitter. However, in the early twentieth century the Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda identified a new concept which he called umami (literally, “delicious taste” in Japanese). This new flavour, unclassifiable as any of the other four, is closely related to the presence of certain amino acids in food: glutamic acid and ribonucleic. The combination of both in foods and recipes also helps to enhance the flavour of the ingredients that compose them. Umami is found in foods such as kombu seaweed, tomatoes, mushrooms, Parmesan, salted anchovies or cured meat.
Kikunae Ikeda (photo from Wikipedia) summarized the taste of jamón de bellota in one word.
Molecular theories aside, the named “fifth taste” is characterized by prolonging the pleasant aftertaste and producing salivation. It would come to be something as abstract and sensory as the impression of the exquisite, the perception of the tasty, a potentiation of good taste, but taste itself. Pata negra ham has had the privilege of being one of the foods listed as umami and thus has become part of the Olympus of flavours. The Ikedia hypothesis, ratified by subsequent studies, gives an acceptable explanation, scientifically speaking, of the king’s unconventional taste of Spanish cuisine.
Perhaps everything has its scientific proof and it’s a matter of pure chemistry, but for those who are not experts in molecular chemistry and live in conceptual ignorance and trust in the truth of our taste buds, we will retain the magic of tasting Iberian jamón de bellota and we experience the inexplicably and unclassifiable delicious taste.
Discover the umami in Iberic and serrano hams of Ibergour.com
Although traditionally pigs have always been reared in pens of a few square metres, zones with an abundance of acorns have also been very common grazing areas for pigs in the fall, coinciding with the falling of the fruit of the oak.
It was an inexpensive way to fatten the animals. There were thousands of hectares of pastures in Extremadura, the north of Andalucía (Huelva, Córdoba, Sevilla) and the south of Castilla y León (Salamanca, Ávila), some municipally owned (communal) and others private, but they offered the right to graze for very little money.
In fact, the existence of large tracts of oak forests is what has allowed the Iberian breed, the Pata Negra pig, not to become extinct. It is the breed of pig best adapted to the environment: agile, strong, able to travel long distances, go up and down hills, with substantial amounts of fat to survive the cold mountains of around 1,000 meters altitude. Most of the more commonly produced white pigs wouldn’t survive, so in these areas the Indigenous Iberian breeds resided.
Herding in current times
The swineherd (also called caregiver) has to control all the animals on a daily basis and identify any problems such as illness, boar attacks, or the quality and quantity of acorns and grass. They need to be extremely familiar with the farm (although it has hundreds of hectares) and know exactly to which areas he or she has to lead the animals. First, when pigs are still thin and agile, they will be led to higher altitudes. Later on in life they will stay on the plain.
Iberian pigs been herded from one area to another in a pasture on the border of Spain and Portugal.
The period of time the Iberian pig spend in the field (the montanera) is the most critical of the whole process of making a jamón de bellota. For 2, 3 or even 4 months, the pig must stay healthy and eat at a steady pace: not too much, not too little. If you overeat you lose mobility and develop excess fat. You don’t want it to walk a lot, let alone climb hills. The pig will just lie on the grass or mud until hungry again.
On the other hand, if a type of disease is not detected early enough it may affect the animal in a way that would make it lose hunger and consequently weight. And if when during recovery there aren’t enough acorns then there will be no choice but to feed and fatten them with fodder and its eventual market price will drop significantly. In addition there is also the risk of the epidemic spreading to the rest of the herd in just a few days.
Swineherd of Iberic pigs and caretaker of the pasturelands during the 2011 montanera period.
Unlike the shepherds and goatherds, during the montanera pig keepers will often go motorized. They don’t spend time with the animals, nor are they with them while they eat. They only look for them and lead them to the grazing area where they are to spend the day, and usually won’t find them again until sunset. The rest of the time is spent mainly on maintenance of the farm, such as repairing roads and hundreds of kilometres of stone walls that separate the grazing areas. It’s also critical to keep the pasture free of weeds and shrubs, which provide shelter to the vermin and other inhabitants of the pasture.
Pigs, unless they are very hungry, aren’t at all dangerous. They are more fearful of humans and usually don’t approach us. However, all swineherds tell the same story to children: that in his village a child entered a pigsty and pigs left nothing, not even the bones. It’s the gory version of what is officially called the Manual of Labour Risks and incidentally is much more convincing.
The other day my friend Isabel told me that at home only her sister cuts the Pata Negra. Not her father or her mother or her grandfather… only her sister was brave enough to face the pig’s leg. They aren’t actually afraid of the knife, but the reproaches they’d receive from other diners: it’s sliced too thick, too thin, don’t forget the gristle, put a little elbow grease into it before we all starve, that’s not where the meat starts, you’re going to cut yourself… Family can be very cruel sometimes, as Julius Caesar found out more than 2000 years ago.
Not wanting to cause a familial breakdown, some choose to take the ham to the butcher for it to be sliced and packed. Not a bad idea, but it’ll start off great and the next thing you know you’re waiting for Santa Claus with a bacon cheeseburger in lieu of ham, polvorones and singing Christmas carols to a bottle of Anís del Mono.
Therefore, we take the bull by the horns and do it ourselves. The first thing to ask is whether we have the right tools. The knife is crucial, but you can buy a decent one anywhere. It must, of course, be sharpened occasionally because if it doesn’t it’ll become as harmless as a lamb.
What’s hardest to find – almost as difficult as finding an honest politician – is adequate support. Some professional ham cutters tune their jamoneras to improve performance and make the work safer and more comfortable. Some attach a rubber base to have a better grip to the table, others make do with a skewer that allows them to adjust the height of the tip (the side opposite to the hoof) and some daring individuals even patent and manufacture their own designs, such as the person from Malaga who devised this upright cross-sectional jamonero.
The experts know very well what they need: they do, after all, cut hundreds of hams every year. Some are even capable of slicing 36 hams in just 40 hours, more than most mere mortals cut in their lifetime. But all the amateurs out there, do you know what to look for when choosing a ham stand? Here are some tips and recommendations:
So the ham doesn’t move while cutting it, you need to make sure the base doesn’t slip off of the surface on which it’s resting. Despite not weight much, just 4 to 6 rubber studs would be more than sufficient to ensure adequate clamping (see photo 1). Good support helps us to avoid sudden movements and potential accidents, and to provide a fine cut.
There are two basic elements that make cutting more comfortable: the rotating grip and height adjustment.
The rotating grip on the trotter (see photo 2) allows you to change cutting zone very quickly without having to loosen or tighten the screw that secures the leg. Just loosen and adjust the screw that allows rotation of the inner ring, and when it’s in the desired position, retighten it; this is especially useful for professional cutters. These systems also tend to hold the part better and provide greater stability.
These systems are designed primarily for Pata Negra Bellota hams, which are usually 100% Iberian and therefore have a very narrow shank. With that said, 6cm in diameter is enough to pass the hoof and ankle through the hoop. If, on the contrary, you want to cut a serrano ham, you’d better choose another grip system if you don’t want to have surprises.
With height adjustment we can always cut the same way, regardless of the size of the piece or the part of the ham we are working on. It allows us to modify the inclination of the axis of the hoof-tip (see photo 3).
3. Storage and transportation
When the jamonero is intended only for occasional use, the ideal situation would be for it to occupy minimal space. In this sense, some models can fold the arm onto the base (see photo 4). This is also highly recommended for when we need to take it from one place to another.
Virtually all brackets costing €25-30 can last us a lifetime if we use it to only cut one or two hams a year. However, professionals need a stronger product that doesn’t show any aesthetic signs of deterioration (chips, appearance of rust, marks on wood, etc.).
Wood or steel boards are more resistant. They don’t usually break, even after a fall. Silestone or plastic based boards are more fragile. In contrast, silestone is not easily scratched and looks brand new when it’s been cleaned. Ham holders for sale at Ibergour (sorted by price):
Other less important considerations
Length of the base: Iberian hams usually measure about 90 cm and any of the above table brackets allow for a proper cut. However, restaurants and shops selling cut hams tend to prefer larger hams, from 9 to 12 kg, because they have a superior performance. Our recommendation in these cases is to opt for a fairly long base, because otherwise you’d have no support for the tip of the ham (the end opposite to the hoof) to be out of the holder.
Furthermore, the shorter the base, the steeper the ham. There are those who prefer it this way but usually it makes it a little more difficult to keep the cutting area flat.
Skewer: Many of the jamoneros have a spike on one end to hold the end of the ham that touches the base (see photo 5). While it’s useful in the shorter and lighter jamoneros it is not so essential in high-end ones as the subjection of the hoof is very good. In fact, many professionals do not like using a skewer because it maims that part of the ham, causing an air inlet that can affect the quality of meat in that area.
Cleaning: Plastic, silestone or steel bases are the easiest to clean. Wood always absorbs some fat which poses no hygienic risk, but it affects your appearance. Over time – and after a few hams – spots start appearing.
Price: Given the amount of a good ham, it’s not worth skimping on the jamonero or the knives, because the final result can be very different depending on their quality. Getting a fine cut and reduce the risk of injury is priceless.
We can find Iberian jamón de bellota for less than €40/kg and for more than €400/kg. It’s a huge difference which is not justified solely by the quality of the final product, but a combination of different factors.
Better quality Pata Negra hams come from 100% Iberian pigs, which cost to raise is significantly higher than cross-breeds. They fatten a lot slower, they produce smaller hams and the litters are smaller in number.
2. Food on the farm
From weaning until it is driven to the mountain, the animal spends a few months on a farm, where it is fed on a diet of fodder. The pig can’t go from drinking the milk of its mother one day to eating acorns the next; it needs time to adapt. One example is what we do with human babies. Once they stop weaning we slowly begin to introduce baby food (cereals and fruit), alternating them with a bottle. This goes on for several weeks until the baby is ready to try other foods such as fish and meat, and later on dried fruits and nuts, etc.
Returning to animal food, there are many prices that are dependent on the quality of the raw material and the combination of cereals and other nutrients in the formula.
3. Age and weight on entering the montanera phase
The law sets minimum conditions for the age and weight to be able to label a ham “de bellota”:
The weight on beginning the montanera phase should be between 92 and 115 kg.
During the montanera phase they should be fattened at least 46 kg on a diet of acorns and grass.
The minimum age at slaughter is 14 months.
The minimum individual carcass weight (after removal of the skin, head and viscera) is 115 kg, except for 100% Iberian animals, in which case the minimum is 108 kg.
Thus, a producer who meets the minimum legal requirements is able to sell hams with a lower production cost than those who are significantly above the threshold, at the expense of quality, of course.
4. Duration of the montanera period
The Royal Decree 4/2014 rules that the pig must spend a minimum of 2 months in the pasture, but there are farmers who extend this by 1 or 2 months, or more. In some cases pigs are given 2 montanera periods. That is, when acorn season is over, they are brought back to the farm until the next season, when they will eat more acorns again.
The longer the montanera period is, the more acorns are eaten and the more exercise undertaken, and so the Pata Negra will be of a higher quality. But this comes with a cost: the shepherds and vets must work more, and the number of casualties among the pigs rises as a result of illness, theft or attacks from other wildlife that inhabit the mountain. Furthermore, the jamón will need more months of maturation, because the quality of the fat would be higher and so the oxidation would be slower.
5. Quality of the montanera
It’s not the fair to put 50 pigs in a pasture of 500 hectares, the same as you would put 100 in the same amount of space. They’d get half the amount of acorns.
Naturally the law limits the density of animals per square metre, and the density of oaks. Therefore manufacturers need to hire an inspection company to certify that their pastures are compliant. But even within the legal limits there are some producers who are closer to the minimum than others.
The quality and quantity of acorns is not the same at all times nor in all pastures. Pigs are very selective and will find the best acorns first, the biggest and sweetest, which are the major contributors to the overall quality of the hams and sausages.
6. Organic vs. Conventional
Undoubtedly one of the aspects that most influences the final price is the condition of organic ham. The limitation in pharmacological treatments raises the mortality of pigs, the absence of preservatives makes many hams spoil before being sold and the cost of the feed is much higher. We must also add the costs of certification and control of the authorities.
Production of organic Iberico ham in Spain is negligible; we only have half a dozen small producers.
7. Maturation period
A Jamón de bellota loses between 8% and 10% of its weight each year that it’s hanging in the cellar (between 7% and 9% in the shoulders). Basically what you lose is water. Thus, if the sale comes within 2 years instead of 3, we can reduce its price by about 10% while maintaining the same margin.
Not surprisingly the quality is not the same. One extra year of maturation brings new aromas, a more intense flavour and easier cutting.
Excess salt, besides being harmful to health also hides a lot of the flavours of ham. Consumers tend to prefer sweeter and softer Iberian hams, especially in recent times.
But what happens if we fall short of salt? Well, two things can happen:
The meat contaminates and rots (salt is the main preservative), or
The muscle tissue loses consistency and flavour. It’s what people in the business call jamón chicloso (gummy ham).
Thus, those manufacturers who strive to minimize the concentration of salt to get better tasting hams know they will have to throw out some pieces. Consequently, they’ll have to sell the others at a higher price to compensate for these losses.
Prestige, exclusivity and advertising campaigns have a direct effect on the selling price.
In 2006 Cárnicas Maldonado launched a special series of €1500 hams called Alba Quercus (renamed Albarragena). Others followed such as Joselito with his Vintage series at €2000 and Jamones Premium by Arturo Sánchez at €4.000… Logically the series don’t last very long; the hams are really good but the price per kg hardly justifies the final quality. In fact, they are often instruments for marketing campaigns.
On the other hand, manufacturers with strong brands know that customers are willing to pay a little more for the security that comes with their name and reputation.
A ham of the same brand can be found at very different prices between one store and another. Not everyone works with the same margins. It’s also possible to lower the price of the ham but end up paying for the service: high delivery costs, very restrictive return policy, poor customer service…
The country where the trade is largely determines the final price. Some manufacturers require sellers to buy the product to the official importer only, and therefore the prices are usually much higher than in its place of origin or in a more competitive environment.
11. Time of year in which the purchase is made
The price of ham is usually quite stable throughout the year, although there may be periods of shortages that drive up the price. It happens, for example, when a manufacturer has exhausted the pieces of a campaign and the next lot are still a little tender.
As an adult, ham is a luxury, like chocolate, for example. In other words, it does not provide any essential nutrients or ones that cannot be obtained from other, less salty, foods. It gives us pleasure, which is no small thing, but we can completely do without it. Therefore, the first thing you can do is eat less of it. As discussed in a previous article, experts recommend eating cured ham no more than 2 or 3 times a week.
You can buy sliced ham or shoulder in 100 g packages, which makes it easier to practice portion control than having the whole ham in the kitchen, which seems like it’s telling you, “Come on, cut and serve yourself a little ham, I’m just sitting here”.
2. Switch to bellota ham
You can take what you save by eating less and use it to buy higher-quality ham. Bellota ham has less salt and healthier fat than serrano ham, so you’re killing two birds with one stone.
3. Cut back on salt in other foods
One idea I got from my parents is that on the day they have ham, they add less or no salt to other parts of the meal such as salad, fish, soup, etc. This way, they don’t exceed the recommended amount for that day.
Just like when you have lentils for the first course, you eat something low in protein for the second course, you can choose foods that have less salt and fat. Fortunately, all the packages now list the percentage of sodium per 100 grams.
4. Eat it with foods rich in potassium
This mineral counteracts some of the harmful effects of salt on blood pressure and is present in citrus (oranges), grapes, carrots, potatoes, spinach, etc.
5. Don’t smoke and drink less alcohol and coffee
Ham pairs perfectly with drinks such as beer. Beer has a much lower alcohol content than wine, which is what typically accompanies Iberian Jamon Pata Negra.
Tobacco and coffee, besides potentially causing sudden increases in blood pressure, are natural enemies of ham: They overpower its flavor and aroma.
Let ham be the prize for that time spent at the gym or that walk through the park that is slightly longer than usual. Both your arteries and your taste buds will thank you.
On the other hand, the demonization of salt as it relates to hypertension has often been questioned in recent years. It seems that “if you have hypertension, moderate your salt intake” is a very simplistic view and that the reality is much more complex, as explained in detail in this article (in Spanish) and in another article of The Guardian.
In all seriousness, it’s worth taking note of this advice and keep enjoying pata negra ham, which has many benefits for your mind and body. It is a source of happiness and especially during the holidays, a big part of our culture.
On May 6th of this year, we launched a campaign to raise money for the fight against COVID-19. Thanks to the response of our customers, we were finally able to transfer the collected funds to Doctors Without Borders in the amount of €2,040.20.
Thanks to Alicia, Damián, Maria Eugenia, and all those who contributed their part so that the campaign would reach more people.
Thanks to Laura and Oscar, for always having the deboned and sliced hams ready on time, even on the busiest of workdays.
Thanks to Jaime, Chema, Jose, and the rest of the warehouse team, for getting the packages out on time throughout all these weeks.
Thanks to Edelmiro, Rocio, Javier and their colleagues in the transport companies, especially the drivers and delivery people, for working under the most complicated conditions while the majority of us were sheltered in our homes.
And above all, thanks to all our customers. Thank you for knowing how to enjoy life with the best ham, and for your solidarity.
The term Reserva has two meanings when it comes to ham, either pata negra or serrano. The main and most common meaning is that it has a long maturation in the cellar (bodega). Royal Decree 474/2014 regulates the use of this term, but it’s not really quality assurance (as formerly went under the name Pata Negra a few years ago), since it allows its use with the only condition of a minimum curing period of 12 months (Reserva) or 15 months (Gran Reserva). However, there are few high-end hams that have Reserva in their name: Jamón Joselito Gran Reserva, Jamón Maldonado Reserva Alba Quercus, Jamón El Coto de Galán Gran Reserva).
The use of epithets Jamón Ibérico and Jamón de Bellota, by contrast, is much more regulated and can only be used, respectively, when the pig is Iberian (or crossover) race and when it has been feed on acorns in the pasture.
But in the ham sector we also refer to Reserva as a certain quantity of hams and shoulders that a vendor puts in charge of a producer months or years in advance.
These reserves help farmers and manufacturers to plan and finance vintages, while the merchants not only ensure the stock but can choose the pieces and monitor their progress throughout the maturation process.
Photo 3: Labels identify the reserves of each merchant in the cellar
Normally, a company – IberGour, for example – reserves hams when they have already had a year or so of curation. From then, they begin to pay monthly, so they aren’t paid at once but in instalments over two years.
This system has a major drawback: it is difficult to predict falls in demand 2 or 3 years in advance due to economic crisis or the evolution of competition. Thus, a store or a restaurant can be found with a collection of hams they have been paying off for several years and finally cannot sell at the expected price.
If you are asked which is saltier, a slice of Iberian jamón de bellota or a crisp? The answer will almost always be the crisp. Moreover, if I ask you to first try a sample of each, the answer wouldn’t change.
The reality is very different: a bag of crisps typically contains 1.5g of salt per 100g of potatoes, while Pata Negra ham contains between 3 to 4.5g per 100g. Even the Serrano ham, which usually doesn’t even reach 5% salt content, seems significantly saltier than Bellota ham despite it having only slightly more salt.
The marbling fat and protein deserve credit in this case. As everyone knows, Iberian ham has a lot of fat marbling, which means the white streaks in the slice. If it’s also Bellota, the fat will melt in the mouth and inundate our taste buds. Thus, our taste buds will be concentrated on the fat and stop being so sensitive to the salt (the sodium of the salt, to be exact).
On the other hand, during the 3 or 4-year maturation period of a good Pata Negra, the salt combines with meat protein, reducing its impact on the taste buds.
Whereas Jamón de bellota seems sweet, it actually doesn’t have much less salt than Serrano ham. You should always follow the recommendations of experts not to consume cured ham more than 2 or 3 times a week, the equivalent to between 100 and 150g, and thus will not reach 15% of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) by WHO (World Health Organisation). We can raise this amount if we moderate our consumption of salt in other foods such as salads and soups, for example. Worth the sacrifice, right?
You start cutting into a Pata Negra ham and all you seem to get is fat and more fat. You look at the plate and calculate that there’s already about a kilo there… £50 or £60 destined straight for the bin. It’s not a good start.
At last, the first streaks of meat appear. Their glossy shine gets your saliva glands working, and when you finally eat the first slices you start seeing things differently.
But is there really too much fat in acorn-reared ham? Has it always been like this?
There are 3 reasons behind the increase in external fat in acorn-reared (bellota) Iberico ham:
Purity of the breed: The current trend is to use the more pure-bred animals for the high-end range. They produce better quality meat and enjoy more substantial official protection (only hams from 100% Iberian pigs can be called Pata Negra). But these pigs are characterized by significant fat stores in the outer part of the muscle, while the intramuscular streaks are much finer than in Duroc pigs.
Longer curing times: The widespread consumption of Iberico ham is a very recent phenomenon – since just 15 or 20 years ago. As José Bello Gutiérrez says in his book Jamón curado: Aspectos científicos y tecnológicos [Cured Ham: Scientific and Technological Aspects], during the last quarter of the 20th century it was more common to eat Serrano ham from white pigs nourished on fodder and bred deliberately to minimize fat. It wasn’t just a question of price. People also thought it was healthier, even if it meant reducing the organoleptic quality of the product. As a consequence, the ham we normally ate during the 20th century was cured for no more than 1 or 2 years and was very lean.
Salt reduction: Consumers (especially in Europe) want products with low salt content. It improves the flavour and is much healthier. But when salt levels are reduced, other elements need to be introduced to protect the ham from organisms that could make it go off. For example, improving sanitary conditions and ensuring cold chain guarantees (crucial during the first months of curing).
Several studies (for example Gou, 1998) have shown that fat slows down the penetration of salt into the middle of the ham because salt diffuses less well than through fat than lean meat. So, the more fatty tissue the ham has, the longer it will take for the salt to reach the meat. Unfortunately, most of the fat will be inedible because it will have oxidized and turned rancid over the years.
Finally, the ham’s own sweat helps: the external fat impregnates all the surface pores as it melts, forming a protective film.
Acorn-reared ham yields roughly 40-45% meat. That means that of a £500 ham, around £300 will end up in the bin. That might seem like a lot, but it’s similar to the yield of other common consumer products like sole (40%), mussels (35%) or nuts (45%).
Do big hams contain a higher proportion of meat?
Yes, they do. That’s why restaurants tend to prefer larger hams of more than 8 or 9 kg.
The reason is that the weight of the bone, the hoof, the skin and the external fat is basically the same for large and small hams. Larger hams are from pigs that put on more weight, but their underlying skeleton is very similar.
But be careful: sometimes that extra weight isn’t because the pig was allowed to eat acorns for longer, but because it was fed on fodder. That means the product is lower quality. In the industry this is known as remate (finishing) and, as you’d expect, it is not permitted by the current law regulating Ibérico ham (formerly it was permitted for hams classified as Recebo, meaning fed on fodder and acorns).
We have recently partnered with DHL to make sure that the best spanish Jamon will fly to HK in good hands, get through customs with no hassles whatsoever, and be delivered at your door ASAP.
It sure has been a long wait, but we are confident that tasting the best spanish Jamón in Hong Kong at regular spanish prices will completely make up for it.
To fulfill your order, just proceed as you would for any online order. Just make sure you choose “Hong Kong” as your country destination when typing in your shipping address, and you will be good to go. The full payment will be completed in our site, no customs fees nor any extra expense will be needed for you to enjoy your Jamón.
Also, please note that the prices displayed on our site include local taxes (VAT) that do not apply for orders bound for HK. These will be removed from the total price of your order once you enter your Hong Kong invoicing data, which will be automatically requested during checkout.
Miquel Nieto, founder
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