For a long time I have claimed that I am a real aficionado of Spanish cuisine, but it’s only been over the last 3 months living in Andalucía that I have learnt the essence behind Jamón, and specifically Jamón Ibérico. This knowledge I owe to the local butcher (and hero) of Vejer, Paco Melero, who has also become a good friend. I’ve only learnt from the best.
What’s the difference between Jamón Ibérico and Serrano? And focusing solely on Ibérico, what do all the different labels mean? I’m here to answer these doubts by explaining the significance of the diet and home environment of the Iberian Black pig, and what the different grades of Jamón Ibérico mean. One thing I've learnt and really support is that red wine is not the best accompaniment when eating a quality Jamón Ibérico. It's richer flavour can often mask the delicate notes in the Jamón. Therefore champagne, cava and especially a crisp and dry Fino or Manzanilla sherry is a more complimentary match.
One day I walked into Paco’s because I wanted to say hey (and scoff some free meat he always gave me). I picked the right day as Paco’s supplier of Jamón happened to be in. The supplier, Estéban, was a true gent with real patience. It was around 7pm and all he probably wanted was to go home when this stupidly chirpy kid arrived firing questions at him for almost an hour. (It was pretty awkward because I randomly gave him a hug when Paco introduced us). Anyway, he soon got into it and I was struggling to get a word in edge ways. “La filtración de la grasa,” (the filtration of the fat) is what he repeated as the key element to Jamón Ibérico. How does this work? What does this even mean? Let me explain.
Difference between Ibérico & Serrano
Jamón Serrano (also named Jamón Reserva, Curado or Extra) comes from ‘white’ pigs which include the Pietrain, Duroc and Landrace varieties. The word Serrano means “of the Sierra” which are the mountains. This is the typical Jamón you will find in many bars, supermarkets across Spain and Spanish restaurants in the UK. It’s good, often very good, but nothing on Jamón Ibérico. (By the way if you’re reading this having never even known there was a difference between the two, it’s all good. This is not a snobby blog where you’re expected to know these things and I would be privileged to be the first person to educate you about it).
Jamón Ibérico can only derive from the Iberian black pig, and the pig must have at least 50% black piggyness in its genes to be classified as Ibérico. You may have heard it referred to by its other name, Pata Negra, which our friend Jamie Oliver often uses. Pata Negra literally means ‘Black Hoof,’ and describes the colour of the feet of this breed of pig. However these black trotters are not characteristic of all Iberian pigs. One of the most celebrated varieties, El Manchado de Jabugo, has white feet for example. The Iberian black pig will only be found grazing in the fields of South and Southwest Spain (in the regions of Andalucía & Extremadura, and also further north around Salamanca incidentally) as well as southern Portugal.
The regions mentioned are relevant because they still contain the landscape that the Iberian black pig lives in. It lives in the Dehesa: land that is covered with Encina trees that produce the acorns that are essential to its diet. These trees (Holm Oak in English) used to grow across 90% of Spain but now only remain in the regions mentioned above.
The Iberian black pig’s natural environment determines its diet: acorns (Bellotas in Spanish pronounced Be-yo-tas). The pigs are fed on a diet consisting entirely or predominantly of acorns and this is the basis of the Jamón’s rich, smooth and nutty flavour and texture. When you hear people say that Jamón Ibérico (again I say Ibérico) is good for you, they have a point. Like nuts, like the fats in avocadoes that hipsters seek smashed up on rye bread, the acorns are full of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat that is considered a healthy fat and assists in reducing cholesterol (in moderation of course).
Environment & Diet (and a bit of exercise)
When we combine both the specific diet and surroundings in which the Iberian black pig thrives, we can understand exactly why the meat it renders is so delectable, so smooth, so mouth-watering...(focus Tim). During the final 3 months of its life, these pigs are left to do their thing in the Dehesa. Doing their thing means eating acorns, a lot of acorns, between 6 and 7kg of acorns a day in fact. For a pig to achieve the highest status on the Jamón Ibérico grading system (explained below), it must reach the designated weight of 160kg established by the folks with the fine role of ensuring the Jamón continues to meet the criteria of DO protected produce. This period in the pig's life is known as the Montanera, and takes place through the autumn and winter as it is prime acorn season.
By allowing the pigs to feast to their heart’s content, they can roam freely through the land. We get happy pigs who grow but also build significant muscle as they run up and down the Dehesa (around 14km a day) to gorge on acorns and to quench their thirst. It’s these muscle fibers that retain the streaks of fat and filters the nutty flavour that it stores to give the characterful Jamón Ibérico taste. The pig is then slaughtered, salted, rinsed and air-dried for a minimum of 4 weeks. Jamón Ibérico then continues to be cured for up to 4 years.
Now for the Grading bit
You can now seek out Jamón IBÉRICO, but here’s where you can really show off your knowledge. Estéban explained to me that, since 2014, all cuts of Jamón Ibérico must be classified with 1 of 4 colours, and this classification is dictated by 3 factors:
- The % of Black Iberian genes in the pig (The pig must have minimum 50% Black Iberian roots to be classed as Ibérico)
- The ratio of acorns in the pig's diet
- The degree to which it’s left free to roam
And for the most valuable varieties of Jamón Ibérico: The length of time the meat is aged for
So, moving from the most most prized grades of Jamón Ibérico, here goes:
BLACK label (100% Jamón Ibérico de Bellota) – 100% pure-bred Iberian black pig / Purely acorn diet during the Montanera (natural grain for the rest of the year) / 100% organic free-range / Aged for minimum 3 years
RED label (Jamón Ibérico de Bellota) – 50-75% Iberian black pig genes / Diet of cereals & acorns / 100% organic free-range / Aged for minimum 3 years
GREEN label (Jamón Ibérico de Cebo de Campo) – At least 50% Iberian black pig genes / Diet of cereals and natural pasture / 100% organic free-range
WHITE label (Jamón Ibérico de Cebo) – At least 50% Iberian black pig genes / Diet of cereals / Commercially reared