Swineherds of Iberian pig

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 in a dehesa in Extremadura

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 on a tractor

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 additives in Pata Negra ham

Until recently, what worried consumers most was the salt content of cured ham. WHO (World Health Organisation) recommends consuming a maximum of 5 grams per day (even less in children and adolescents) to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, although the world average of between 9 and 12g is more than double.

These days it seems that other additives used by most manufacturers generate more fear or distrust in consumers: preservatives, antioxidants, acidity regulators … This article will try to explain why they are used and what the associated health risks are.

Salt

Salt jar
Salt (photo by Gregory Bourolias)

Salt is the oldest known preservative and without it meat would rot. It’s also a flavour enhancer: we tend to find that ham with less than 2.5% salt is tasteless and with an unpleasant texture.

Pata negra ham (jamón ibérico) has the least salt content of them all (between 2.5% to 4.5%). It’s followed by Serrano ham (5%), Bayonne ham (5.5%) and Parma ham (5.7%). Credit goes to genetics in this case: the marbling fat and higher pH level in Iberico hams hinders the penetration of the salt.

When compared with other types of products, it would be at the same level as Roquefort cheese or olives.

As we mentioned in the introduction, it’s been proven that excess salt increases the risk of cardiovascular disease (hypertension, heart attacks, etc.) but it’s also thought to cause kidney failure and osteoporosis.

Preservatives

The most commonly used preservatives are potassium nitrate (E-250) and sodium nitrite (E-252). Nitrates and nitrites have been used for hundreds of years and play an important role in ensuring the microbiological safety (especially protecting consumers from botulism) of foodstuffs.

The European Food Safety Agency limits the maximum amount of sodium nitrite to 100mg/kg and potassium nitrate to 150mg/kg (Directive 2006/52 /EC). It is such a low amount that the formation of potentially carcinogenic nitrosamines is negligible. Furthermore, jamón isn’t a product that has to be cooked, so that the high temperatures needed to display said compound (130ºC) wouldn’t be reached. In this sense a much more dangerous meat would be, for example, bacon, as it is a product with a short maturation period and cooked at high temperatures (150-190°C).

These two compounds, in addition to protect us from certain bacteria, also influence the colour and aroma. The meat becomes slightly redder and the smell of curing overpowers any rancid aromas.

Almost all producers use one, or both, of these preservatives with some exceptions being Joselito hams and the organic hams (also known as ecological). This commitment to the elimination of additives requires them to exercise extreme control of the curing process, especially during the first 3 months, which is when there is more risk of microbiological contamination. On the other hand, these pieces tend to have a longer maturation period of between six months to a year. The more dehydrated the ham, the harder it is for bacteria to grow.

The effect on the colour is not essential in the case of Iberian ham, as the high content of zinc in this type of meat is the main guarantor of its reddish coloration, and so it doesn’t need the coloration effects of the preservatives.

However, in Italy they have eliminated all additives in Parma ham and San Daniele for quite some time now (except salt, of course). And in Switzerland the use of sodium nitrite (E-252) is not allowed under any circumstances.

Antioxidants

Sodium ascorbate (E-301) is often added to reduce the adverse effects caused by preservatives, as it reduces the generation of nitrosamines. It’s considered harmless, but consuming more than 10mg per day can cause diarrhoea and kidney stones.

Acidifiers

Sodium citrate (E-331-iii) is completely harmless and there are no set daily limits on how much is safe to ingest. It serves to regulate the pH (acidity) and to strengthen the role of antioxidants.

Sugar (or lactose, which is the sugar found in milk)

Although often used in sausages, it’s rarely used in ham and serves to mask the bitter, stale notes.

In short, the most harmful additive used in ham is salt. If we were to share an 80g serving with one other person, we will have ingested between 1 and 2g of salt, which is between 20% and 40% of the recommended daily amount, more or less the same as if we were to eat 125g of bread (half a baguette, for example). What can I say? I would rather stop eating bread and eat a whole tapa of Pata Negra ham.