Jamón Ibérico refers to a cured ham only produced in Spain. The pigs must be at least 75% Black Iberian, cerdo negro, the only breed of pig that naturally seeks and eats mainly acorns. The Black Iberian Pig lives primarily in the southwestern parts of Spain.
The hams are labeled according to the pigs’ diet, with an acorn diet being most desirable:
• The third type of jamón ibérico is called jamón ibérico de pienso, or simply, jamón ibérico. This ham is from pigs that are fed only grain. The ham is cured for 24 months.
The term pata negra is also used to refer to jamón ibérico in general and may refer to any one of the above three types.
Bellota jamones are prized both for their smooth texture and rich savory taste. A good ibérico ham has regular flecks of intramuscular fat. Because of the pig’s diet of acorns, much of the jamón’s fat is comprised of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid that has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol.
Until recently, jamón ibérico was not available in the U.S. In 2005 the first producer in Spain, Embutidos y Jamones Fermin, was approved by the U.S.D.A. to export ibérico ham products to the U.S. The first jamónes ibéricos were released for sale in the United States in December, 2007, with the bellota hams available since July 2008.
The hams from the slaughtered pigs are salted and left to begin drying for two weeks, after which they are rinsed and left to dry for another four to six weeks. The curing process then takes at least nine months, although some producers cure their jamones ibericos from 18 to 30 months from start to finish, including cutting, salting, washing, drying and maturation. Depending on the weight of the ham the curing time may be longer. For shoulder cuts, which are smaller, the curing process lasts between 10 and 18 months, although larger pieces may take longer.
Salting of Jabugo hams is done with sea salt. Hams then undergo a natural drying and maturation process in a bodega for a total of almost 3 years, after which they are tested.
Legend has it that hams were created when a pig one day fell into a gully with very salty water, and drowned. Shepherds found the pig and roasted it, discovering that the meat – particularly the hind leg – had a pleasant flavor. Later they discovered that when the hind leg was salted it lasted longer without losing its flavor, and the method was thereafter perfected.