Actually, it’s the whole world’s most expensive ham. But it’s Spain’s ham, and Spain is the best place to taste it. It’s so good that even if there were nothing else at all to see or do in the the south west of Spain (although there really, really is), this particular cold cut would be reason enough to go there.
There are few things on this planet that are as singularly delicious as a plateful of thinly sliced Jamon Iberico de Bellota. The ham is cured for at least 12 months and is a deep rich red colour, marbled with rivulets of golden fat. It should be eaten in thin slices, at room temperature (I would add ‘in great quantities’ here too, but at up to €200 per kilo, ‘great quantities’ probably isn’t an option for most of us!). It needs nothing more as an accompaniment than some fresh bread. It is soft, exceptionally glossy and shiny, and with a high quantity of fat that begins to dissolve at around 20°C, it quite literally melts in your mouth.
So how does it get that good? And why does it cost so much?
Well, Jamon Iberico de Bellota is basically Spain’s version of Japanese Kobe beef, the meat gleaned from those Wagyu cattle that are fed beer, massaged with Sake, and tucked in with bedtime stories and lullabies every night. There are strict conditions that have to be followed if you want your jamon to make the grade. It takes time, and acorns. Lots of acorns.
In the south, and particularly the southwest of Spain, there is an area called the Dehesa, a vast area of land that has its own microclimate and is populated by lots and lots of Encino trees – or as we call them, Holm Oaks – as well as Spanish Oak, Gall Oak and Cork Oak. As you know, from mighty oak trees do little acorns fall, and it is these acorns (bellota) that hold the key to what is considered the world’s best ham, and is definitely one of its most revered delicacies.
You see, the area is also full of lots and lots and big, fat, black Iberian pigs – or Pata Negra, as the locals call them due to their black hooves. And the reason Jamon Iberico is so, so, so (I mean, really so) good is because of this perfect, magical union between pig and acorn. The black Iberico pigs go absolutely nuts for acorns. They love them. They make – well, they make absolute pigs out of themselves for them; they can’t get enough. And they are able to roam freely on the pastures of the Dehesa, finding and gobbling and fattening themselves up on as many of the little things as they can get their little black hooves on.
These acorns are high in fat. The more of this stuff that the Iberian pigs consume, the bigger and fatter they get, and in their final ‘fattening up’ months, they consume up to 9 kilos of acorns every day. These flavourful fats work their way into the pigs’ bodies, which causes their meat to have a high fat to muscle ratio (this explains all the marbling of fat in the meat). It also gives the fat its deep golden tone, sublimely buttery texture, and incredible, sweet, nutty, earthy, and totally incomparable flavour. All that extra fat sounds like a delicious heart attack on a plate though, right?
Well, no actually. You see, more than 55% of the fat you find on Jamon Iberico de Bellota is made up of a thing called ‘unsaturated oleic fatty acid’. This is what the acorns are made up of, and – well, you know the phrase ‘you are what you eat’? Yep – the rich diet of acorns actually transforms the animal fat into a healthy, mono-unsaturated fatty acid, a bit like extra-virgin olive oil. It’s the fat’s composition that makes it so soft and melt-in-the-mouth too.
So just to re-cap, Jamon Iberico de Bellota is not just utterly delicious and made from free range animals who are exceptionally well treated – it’s actually good for you too… How can this be?
Well, it’s a rare thing. Which explains the price. Like we said, with the highest grade hams costing as much as €200 per kilo, you might not get to taste too much of the very best stuff. But what you can do is splash out €15-20 on 100 grams of the stuff, just to taste it. My advice, don’t be really hungry when you do this, or you’ll eat it way too fast to appreciate it! This is one to savour.
If you’re a big foodie and you want to find out more, think about taking a trip to one of the main regions of production (many just over an hour from Seville), to do a special Jamon Iberico tour to see the dehesas, meet the piggies, talk to a porquero and get a behind the scenes of production.
If you’re on a budget that won’t allow you to spend fifteen or twenty euro on 100g of meat, don’t beat yourself up too much – you can still eat lots of really awesome cured meats in Spain. It’s like Kobe beef – just because you might not be able to afford the finest fillet from a Japanese Black Wagyu doesn’t mean you won’t happily demolish a nice medium rare sirloin from a regular cow.
Jamon Serrano: This ham comes from the native white pig, rather than the Iberian black. It’s nowhere neat as expensive, but it’s still pretty delicious. Look out for Jamon de Trevelez or Jamon de Teruel, both are really delicious and far friendlier to your wallet than ham from the acorn-fed posh pigs.