Curing pork is an ancient tradition in Spain. The Iberian pig is a healthy meat making machine which has been responsible for preserving 300 million hectares of land for more than 2000 years in Spanish territory.
Iberian pigs are black and fairly hairless with black hooves thus the name “pata negra” which refers to the dark hoof that remains on the ham throughout the curing process and distinguishes it from a Serrano ham. Iberian pigs are much bigger animals with fat well distributed through the muscle which allows Iberian hams to be cured much longer, resulting in much more complex and intense flavor.
But there are big differences in Spanish hams! Pay careful attention to a few details. First the kind of pig. You’re looking for Ibérico. Jamón Ibérico is made from Ibérian pigs. Jamón Serrano on the other hand is mountain-cured ham, made from the white pig, and jamón ibérico is made from the Iberian pig.
Next, you’re interested in what they eat. The best eat as many acorns as possible, if they don’t eat enough acorns they have to be fattened up with some feed, they are called recebo but the government is changing the name so in the future they will be called: Reserva especial.
It´s not easy being a pig. Iberian pigs have been faced with extinction, during the 80s they suffered through a plague, farmers worked hard for their preservation and they have since come back stronger. Today’s threat is more intricate - falsification - believe it or not there are imitators of Iberian ham. Look for the best. Buy from a recognized merchant make sure it’s 100% Iberian pork raised in the open air in a holm oak forest and cured from 3-4 years in the high mountains. You should look for Jamon Iberico de Bellota. A good clue? It’s expensive. Jamón Ibérico de Bellota can cost twice as much as a normal Ibérico ham. If you get sticker shock you can always get paleta, which is the front leg of the Iberian pork and it can be really good!
How do you eat it? Ham should be eaten at room temperature around 21ºC, you’ll know it’s ready when you see that the natural fat glistens, whereas cold ham is opaque. Ham should be cut in thin slices and you should be able to see the patterns of marbled fat. It’s best eaten on its own with some bread or picos the mini Spanish breadsticks. .
Enjoy it with sherry, red wine or dry white wine, but nothing too acidic. If you’re a beer kinda person, not a problem as it pairs perfectly well with ham and cured meats in general.