Jamón Ibérico, an artisan product that is not only renowned for its flavour, but also shows the benefits of good animal welfare.
On a trip to Barcelona a few years ago, a work colleague described with great enthusiasm a Spanish ham made from the meat of black pigs left to roam free in the mountains and eat acorns. Beyond my surprise that pigs ate acorns (though of course Piglet was very keen on them), the idea seemed very romantic, and a far cry from the questionable animal welfare practices that plague most mass-produced meat products.
Jamón Ibérico is becoming well-known across the world, and is an artisan product of such a standard to be mentioned in the same breath as caviar and champagne. The hams come from the black Ibérico pig or ‘pata negra’, a pig with layers of fat running through the muscle which allows the hams to be cured for much longer (two years or more).
Despite my delight at the image of all these pigs running through the mountains, gorging on acorns, this is not the case for all Jamón Ibérico – only the pigs designated for ‘Jamón Ibérico de Bellota’ status (literally, Acorn Ibérico Ham) enjoy this winter ‘montenara’ period of immense gluttony for 3-4 months. And as gluttony goes, it’s impressive – each pig can gain up to 2 lbs per day, doubling their weight over the period. It’s little wonder that the Spanish refer to the pigs as ‘olives on legs’.
In addition to the bellota PDO variety, the range of products produced under the moniker is as confusing as balsamic vinegar, and not always from free range animals. Simon Majumdar wrote an excellent article in the guardian last year on the different types – look for the aforementioned Jamón Ibérico de bellota, Jamón Ibérico de recebo or Jamón Ibérico cebo de campo which are all outdoor reared.
As easy as that sounds, it may not always be possible. I bought the ham in the photo above from the excellent Darts Farm in Topsham, Devon. At the time, I knew nothing of these variations, and it was described simply as ‘Iberico Ham’. I called them to ask if there were any more details on the label for the ham, but it apparently simply says ‘Jamón Ibérico’.
The price was comparable to the bellota variety (compared to the online price from bellota.co.uk), and the taste was incredible, nutty and sweet, similar to a mature cheddar, but with a flavour that kept on changing and developing. It’s something that any meat-eater should taste at least once in their life – a true example of an artisan food with characteristics that elevate it far above mass-produced fair. It may have been the power of suggestion, but I’m sure I could detect a flavour reminiscent of acorns (now I just need to eat an acorn to make sure).
Crucially, despite the price this is not an elitist food. You don’t have to have a ‘sophisticated pallet’ to appreciate it, pure and simple it is just very, very tasty. Open your mouth, pop it in, close your eyes and enjoy.
I bought about 50g for £5, and it was well worth it even for those few slices. If I had one complaint, it was that the standard of carving was not up to much (see that chunky looking wad at the front of the plate), so I ended up with scraps and chunks rather than neat wafer thin slices. Next time I plan to glare at the carver throughout the slicing process, and maybe wail dramatically if the slices come out too thick.
I should probably apologise now for making reference to Piglet in a post about ham. Sorry about that.