The gold standard for ham, Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, can be equated to the finest dry aged filet mignon steak. You can be sure that it doesn’t come from any ole’ barnyard pig! Derived from the Black Iberian swine, which lives primarily in the South and Southwest parts of Spain, Jamón Ibérico accounts for only about 8% of Spain’s cured ham production, and is extremely hard to find here in the States. That all changed here in NYC when Jezalin’s Gourmet Market recently opened up inside the Limelight Marketplace. Their $39.95 “Conquistador” is served plain in a crispy baguette so the flavors of this finest ham are unadulterated.
To get a sense of what this ham tastes like, it helps to learn about how the pig is raised and the unique curing method used. Raised in the ancient oak pastures of Spain, the black Ibérico pig was domesticated over the centuries. This hog is big, with slender legs, a very long snout, and little hair. They are also much fatter than conventional pigs with veins of fat running through their muscles allowing them to be cured longer. This produces a much more complex, intense flavor with a distinct sweetness.
The Jamon Iberico de Bellota is allowed to forage for acorns as well as herbs and grasses. All this running around feasting, especially during acorn season, does more than satisfy the pig. It produces an exquisitely marbled meat packed with natural antioxidants, a key ingredient for extended curing. Each pig can eat 20 pounds of acorns a day. During the height of feeding they can gain up to 2 pounds of fat per day.
The resulting hams are left to absorb salt for a few weeks and then are hung in factories that still have open windows to allow the mountain air to circulate around them. Iberico hams cure for two to four years. This extraordinarily long curing process is possible because of the huge amount of fat on each ham. Over the curing period they lose nearly half their weight as the fat drips away. Because of the salt, bacteria cannot take hold, but massive chemical changes occur. The meat becomes dryer and more complex transitioning from a piece of pork into an orchestra of flavors…sweet, nutty, and not too salty.