Is Bellota ham produced outside of the Iberian peninsula?

Page from the calendar of the Très Riches Heures (November: pigs eating acorns)
Page from the calendar of the Très Riches Heures (month of November: scene in which pigs are eating acorns in the forest)
©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjZda

In practice we can see that jamón de bellota is only produced in Spain and Portugal, but this has not always been the case and perhaps it won’t be in the future either.

Pigs are eating acorns in the forests bordering the Mediterranean Sea long before it was domesticated by humans. The oaks in drier region and the cork trees and oaks in wetter areas were very common until a couple of centuries ago.

In Homer’s Odyssey, the goddess and sorceress Circe turned Ulysses’ companions into swine and fed them acorns, which suggests that in Ancient Greece pigs were fed on the fruit of the oak.

In the 15th century, a famous manuscript called “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry”, written in the central France, used a scene in which pigs are eating acorns in the forest (see the reproduction on the left) to illustrate the month of November. It’s a work by the painter Jean Colombre, dated between 1485 and 1486.

Marco, a reader of this blog, informs us that currently in France there are small amounts of pigs that feed on acorns on the island of Corsica and the department of Hautes Pyrénées and bordering regions near the Aragon Pyrenees.

Those in Corsica come from an autochthonous breed called Nustrale (or U Porcu Neru), a small and shaggy dark animal bred in freedom for nearly 2 years and also fed with chestnuts.

In the Pyrenees there is the black pig Bigorre (of the Gasconne breed), which was on the brink of extinction in the late 20th century. Our Pata Negra also went through a similar time of uncertainty during the 1970s.

Lower Franconia is a region in the state of Bavaria (Germany) where they have begun to recover the old ways of grazing pigs and feeding them acorns. What began as a pilot scheme in 2003 has become reality in the EICHELSCHWEIN® GmbH company (literally “Acorn Pigs, Inc.”). The German jamón de bellota with an 18 month curing period sells for €65/kg, in line with the cost of a Organic Iberian Bellota Ham from Jabugo.

Italy is one of the largest cured ham producers, but according to Giovanni Ballarini, President of the Italian Academy of Cuisine in the 12th century they stopped feeding pigs with acorns and other fruits of the forest and began intensive breeding in stables.

However, after seeing the success and acceptance of Spanish Iberico ham, various producers in southern Italy (Naples, Sicily) are reviving ancient indigenous breeds related to Iberian pigs. The most prominent example is the Prosciutto Crudo di Maiale Nero Siciliano Monti Nebrodi, made from pigs bred in freedom and fed with chestnut and acorns in mountainous pastures of northern Sicily.

In Morocco, on the northern slopes of the Atlas, it’s also easy to find oaks and forest similar to Iberian pastures. The tree bark is used in making dyes for clothes (one of the main economic activities of the country) and acorns can be purchased in local markets for human consumption. Muslims do not eat pork and therefore there are no ham manufacturers there today, but if the demand for this product is still increasing we shouldn’t rule out that some producers will begin using this part of Africa to fatten their stock.


Overseas Serrano Ham

Recently there has been several news stories concerning cured ham production in China and warned that the ham curing industry could suffer a similar relocation which has already taken place in other industries.

It is no secret that Asians are jamón enthusiasts. They have learned the Spanish and Italian techniques and have begun to produce it from white pigs. In a recent article in La Vanguardia, a researcher at the University of Córdoba stated that soon they will begin to use Iberico pigs.

It may not be good news for the producers of jamón de cebo (made from pigs fed with fodder), although right now production in China barely reaches 1% of that of Spain. Manufacturers of Iberian ham can rest easy, because playing such a complex ecosystem as the Mediterranean pasture is very difficult, although the Spanish entrepreneurs behind AcornSeekers claim to have achieved just that in Texas (USA), and expect to flood the American market with fresh meat and “Made in USA” Pata Negra hams.

6 Reasons that Pata Negra Jamón de Bellota Increases the Appetite

Pata negra ham slices

It is unusual for a customer to explain why they buy jamón de bellota. We mostly assume it is simply because Pata Negra is great. But there are several customers who have told us that they buy ham because of how little they feel hungry and it helps them to boost their appetite.

For most of us gluttony is a problem, but there are some who need to stimulate their appetite because their lack of appetite causes them important nutritional deficiencies. Some medical treatments, such as chemotherapy to cure cancer, cause nausea and lack of appetite. Also stress, the deficit of some minerals and various digestive disorders are associated with reluctance. There seems that there are even some people with a sense of permanent satiety that makes them hate food.

So we thought it would be interesting to find out the reasons why Iberian ham, and especially de bellota, is so appealing even in adverse conditions. Here are the findings:

Why jamón de bellota increases the appetite

  1. It’s delicious and healthy
    The first thing recommended to stimulate the appetite is to eat what you like. That is, what you most enjoy. If you have a medical prescription to avoid fatty products, remove the fat and eat only lean. Pure Iberian ham (Pata Negra), such as Cinco Jotas Ham from Jabugo, is usually fattier than ham from mixed breed pigs, but the difference is minimal. However, the level of healthy oleic acid tends to be higher than what is found in mixed breed. Our recommendation: pure bred.
  2. It’s associated with good memories
    In most of our homes, jamón de bellota, is eaten only during large celebrations: dinners on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, weddings, christenings, communions… The memory of these good moments enjoying a ham in the best company opens up our appetite.
  3. The smell is mild and pleasant
    Unlike other foods, such as cheese or seafood, the smell of ham is very subtle. Strong odours can sometimes cause rejection, and therefore are not recommended in these cases. So, it is best consumed unheated at room temperature so as to prevent the smell getting stronger.
    Serrano ham, if it has had a minimum maturation period of 18 months, also has pleasant and toasty aromas. But if the curing period is anything less than 12 months it still smells a little like fresh meat and is not so appetizing.
  4. It doesn’t fill you up because it doesn’t contain fibre
    Fibre, present above all in vegetables (1.5% in lettuce) and cereals (2.2% in brown rice), is essential for a balanced diet but is very filling (it produces gases) and can be difficult to digest.
  5. The high zinc content helps regulate digestion
    This mineral is necessary, among other things, to regulate digestion and prevent loss of appetite. It is mainly found in protein-rich foods such as pork, and some seafood.
  6. It’s very quick to prepare
    Poor appetite coupled with lack of time leads to some people skipping breakfast, lunch or dinner. With ham there are no excuses: you open the fridge, take out a packet with already sliced ham inside. It’s also great for snacking, allowing you to distribute food intake and reduce the size of main meals (some people can’t manage a full plate).

There are other natural remedies that help to ignite your appetite, such as mint infusions, anise or liquorice. There are also medicines and drugs, like those derived from cannabis (marijuana and hashish) which act directly on brain receptors that trigger appetite. But it’s clear that, as delicious as Iberico jamón de bellota is, nothing has been invented so far.

Why doesn’t a good Pata Negra ham taste salty?

Pata negra ham slices on plateIf 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.

Another example: seawater has a salinity of about 3.5%, but it seems much saltier than jamón.

What masks the 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?