D.O. Extremadura Bellota Shoulder €137.51 paletilla weighing 4.5 Kg
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Joselito Gran Reserva Bellota Ham €468.03 jamon weighing 7.5 Kg
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Hams of the finest quality come from pigs of the Iberian breed, characterized by their dark coat and black hoofs, thus giving rise to the familiar name "pata negra", or "black hoof", by which they are also known. The term can be misleading, however, and is not used officially for the following reasons:
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The Iberian pig (Sus Scrofa Mediterraneus) whose unique origin can be traced back to ancient times, is found in herds clustered in the central and southern territory of the Iberian Peninsula.
The most commonly accepted theory is that the first pigs were brought to the Iberian Peninsula by the Phoenicians from the Eastern Mediterranean coast (current day Lebanon) where they interbred with wild boars. This cross gave rise to the first Iberian breeds whose origins, in this case, can be traced back to about the year 1000 B.C.
Pigs of Mediterranean origin found in Spain are of different varieties, strains or ecological adaptations known generically as "Iberian pigs" (Aparicio Macarro, J.B. "El Cerdo Ibérico.", 1987). The most common strains of Iberian pig are:
These varieties have similar genetic characteristics; the Manchado de Jabugo (spotted pig) is the farthest removed, having originated in the early 19th century as a result of interbreeding of foreign (probably English) breeds with the local population of Iberian pigs.
Hams from the Entrepelado and Lampiño varieties are the most marbled with fat, giving them greater flavour and aroma than hams from other Iberian varieties. Torbiscal is the result of a fusion of four ancestral breeds. The most widespread varieties are Retinto and Lampiño.
During the 19th and 20th centuries crossbreeding with imported breeds was attemped with the aim of increasing productivity of the animals (shorter growing periods, higher carcass weight, etc.). In extensive farming the results were not particularly promising, in general because of insufficient adaptation to the environment.
The most successful crosses were Large Black-Duroc or Duroc-Jersey, in particular. The Duroc-Jersey cross is admitted by all of the Designations of Origin, as long as the percentage of that breed is not greater than 25% (the remaining 75% must be pure Iberian). In 1961 the first Duroc-Jersey swine were imported from the United States by the Spanish Livestock Selection Coordination Board (Junta Coordinadora de la Mejora Ganadera de España). The animals' reddish coloured skin enabled them to adapt well to the intense sunlight, as became apparent during their first summer in Extremadura.
The most notable difference between Iberian and cross breeds is seen during grazing. Iberian pigs constantly explore the terrain, as they selectively, instintively forage for available resources. Cross breeds, being less selective, are also less active.
As for performance, the Duroc-Jersey cross is more prolific and develops earlier, with a shorter production cycle and less fat, larger litters and higher weights both at weaning and during the fattening period. It has a lower percentage of lard and a longer carcass; the disadvantage is that hams are of lower quality.
At present Iberian pigs are grown in the southwestern part of the Iberian peninsula, predominantly in Extremadura, Andalusia (especially Cordoba, Huelva, Seville and Cadiz) and Salamanca. Extensive farming calls for a specific ecosystem - the "dehesa", as it is known here - characterized by extensive tracts of land with sparsely populated woods of holm and cork oaks, found only in these regions.
Legend has it that hams were created when a pig one day fell into a gully with very salty water, and drowned. Shepherds found the pig and roasted it, discovering that the meat - particularly the hind leg - had a pleasant flavour. Later they discovered that when the hind leg was salted it lasted longer without losing its flavour, and the method was thereafter perfected. Today, ham constitutes one of the world's most exquisite products.
"Pata negra" hams are elongated, and the leg above the hoof is long and slender. Colour ranges from rosy to purplish red. They have aromas that are intense, pleasing and highly nuanced; their flavor is very delicate, with the faintest hint of saltiness. The flesh is smooth, and the fat is lustrous and soft to the touch.
A ham should be cut into very thin slices. For this purpose you should have a proper ham knife, sharpener and stand, and follow slicing recommendations to enjoy it in optimum conditions.
Although each Designation of Origin has its own nomenclature, section 4 of Royal Decree 1083/2001(spanish) establishes the following grades of ham:
Based on diet:
These designations apply exclusively, as stipulated, to the products specified in this legislation, and may not be used separately to refer to other, similar pork products.
Quality designations must be listed in the following order:
Up until the end of the 20th century the names "Ibérico" and "pata negra" were often used indiscriminately to refer to pigs that were in fact crossbreeds. To avoid consumer confusion and prevent unfair competition, initial minimum standards were imposed on the market by Royal Decree 1083/2001(spanish), stipulating that animals whose production was included in the legislation were required to have a minimum of 50% Iberian blood (from pure Iberian breed sows).
Under this legislation, products regulated by these quality control standards could only be obtained from the offspring of pure Iberian breeder sows and breeder boars that are pure Iberian, Duroc, or Duroc-Jersey, or a cross of those breeds.
The decree was subsequently expanded, in Royal Decree 144/2003(spanish). One of the main changes in quality control standards for Iberian ham is the reference to labelling, in which it is clearly specified that the term "pata negra" may only be used to refer to products which comply with those quality criteria:
"Use of the terms 'Iberian', 'pure Iberian', 'montanera', 'recebo', 'bellota', 'retinto' and 'pata negra' is expressly prohibited for products that do not comply with the present legislation."
Use of the word "bellota" on product labels is regulated by the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, which together with the Interprofessional Iberian Pig Association (ASICI) annually determines the analytical values for palmitic, stearic, oleic and linoleic fatty acids that hams must contain to be considered to be "bellota quality".
AECERIBER(spanish) (Asociación Española de Criadores de Ganado Porcino Ibérico Puro y Tronco Ibérico) as well as some universities in Andalusia and Extremadura are carrying out intensive research in the Iberian swine sector. The results of their studies can be found on the following websites: