Spain's most famous gourmet product - The worlds healthiest pork.
Without a doubt one of Spain’s genuine world leading gourmet delights is Cerdo Ibérico – the pork from the black Iberian Pig.
What makes this meat so incredibly special is that for the last few months of each pig’s life, they are allowed to graze free range Dehesas (acorn forests), munching their way through tons of bellotas (acorns), which have fallen from helm oak and cork oak. It is these acorns which gives the fat of the pigs its unique, sweet flavour. When you see Cerdo ibérico in its raw state, you first notice how the meat is shot through with streaks of creamy white fat. This fat dissolves during the cooking process and flavours and tenderises the meat to such an extent that it must be one of the top edible gifts from Mother Nature.
The happy Iberian pig can only be bred in a few parts of Spain and there is nowhere else in the world that it will get this unique flavour. In Spain this region stretches from as far south as the Aracena region, around Jubago - the jamón capital of Spain - and then up to as far north as Salamanca.
The acorns are the key to the quality of the meat. The acorns make these pigs terribly thirsty, so they run around looking for water, making them athletic little things, developing fine bones which are evident in the bone of jamón ibérico (hams), usually produced from their rear legs. When I first came to live in Spain, my Spanish friends would tut, tut and finger wag at me when I pulled the fat off a slither of jamón ibérico (also refered to as Pata Negra because of their black hooves) and cast it aside. They regard this fat as a delicacy and I now tend to agree. Its sweetness literally melts in your mouth. Wrapped around a tiny picos (break stick), followed by a sip of Fino, is simply divine.
Breeding these pigs is no cheap task – this is the opposite spectrum of intensive pig farming. This is then reflected in the price which makes jamón ibérico de bellota the most expensive ham in the world.
The most expensive and best quality is called jamón ibérico de bellota (acorn). These pigs have been free range, dining on the carpets of fallen acorns on dehasas in Southern Andalucía for the most part of their lives. The more exercise these pigs get, the more the fat blends into their muscles and the tastier the meat becomes. It is considered that 5J ["cinco jotas"], is the King of jamón bellota.
The next grade is called jamón ibérico de recebo. This ham is from pigs that are both pasture and compound fed a combination of acorns and grain.
The third type is called jamón ibérico de pienso, or simply, jamón ibérico. This ham is from Iberian pigs that are solely compound fed on grain and some acorns. The term pata negra is also used to refer to jamón ibérico in general and may refer to any one of the three above types.
It is important to note that Jamón Serrano comes from Cerdo Blanco (the more common white pigs) that is solely grain fed. This comprises around 90% or the pork and ham production in Spain. It is the cheapest of all the jamóns. It’s still delicious and perfect for sandwiches or cooking should your recipe call for jamón.
Another important thing to understand – in terms of price and quality – is which leg you are buying. A jamón ibérico is normally the hind leg of the pig. A paletilla is the front leg. Nevertheless, a paletilla can have an excellent taste and undergoes the same processes of ham-making. The difference is that a paletilla is smaller and has more fat. Therefore it’s cheaper. So if you’re considering buying a whole jamón and can’t afford a Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, ask for a Paletilla Ibérico de Bellota. It is usually half the price.
Here I am banging on about the fabulous flavour of Cerdo Ibérico and now suggesting a marinade to enhance it! When correctly administered (yes Dr.) marinades can bring out flavours - wrongly administered and they can kill them all. Fennel seeds and pork are an Italian marriage. Italian salami’s are often are spiked with fennel seeds. It’s said that Roman Legionaries would chew on fennel seeds as they marched to suppress the pangs of hunger. I have tried this. I have even tried being massaged using pure fennel seed oil – it doesn’t work........
Presa Ibérico is my favourite cut of Cerdo Ibérico. Presa is the muscle between the top of the shoulder and the beginning of the loin. It can be found in most supermarkets pre packaged and sliced. If you go to your butcher – don’t be put off when you see a LUMP of pork, looking rather fatty. Remember it’s the fat that makes it special. As it cooks, the fat will caramelize and intensify the sweetness. Tell your butcher it’s for the BBQ or plancha. He should slice it like we slice smoked salmon in UK. Another cut on offer, Secreto is much cheaper but I find it a bit gristly and too fatty. Some people far prefer this cut because of the tasty fat content. These are the people you can sell your fat to whilst ripping it off a slice of jamón ibérico!
Finally, it should be noted this type of saturated animal fat is actually good for you as not only is it the best quality fat; it also leaves you feeling more satisfied. Animal fats give us energy and boost the immune system and can actually lower bad cholesterol
Peña Gastronómica de Vejer "La Viña", Vejer de la Frontera, 11150 Cadiz, Andalucia, Spain