Simple recipe for making broth with a pata negra ham bone

Your pata negra ham may have nothing left to give but you can still do things with it, like making a delicious consommé or a flavorful sauce for a meat dish. The bone marrow and the bits of meat you can’t cut off the bone are tasty and nutritious (vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and more). Here is how to get it all with very little work and money.

Homemade broth

Homemade broth with pata negra ham bone

Ingredients (for 1 liter of broth):

  • 500 g of Iberico ham bones
  • 2 liters water
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 leek or 1 small onion
  • 1 potato
  • 250 g of squash
  • 1 celery stalk
  • Optional: a little parsley, 2 bay leaves, a piece of turnip, half a cabbage, one pig’s foot and 500 grams of beef, lamb or chicken.
  • DO NOT ADD SALT. The bone contains some salt and it is best to wait until the broth is done before salting to taste.

Preparation:

The ham has several bones and it is best to locate the joints and cut the ligaments with a kitchen knife (photo 1). The biggest pieces can be cut with a saw or a cleaver.

Remove the skin from the pieces and leave a small amount of rancid fat (photo 2).

Cut up the vegetables (photo 3), place everything in a pot with cold water and cook over high heat until it comes to a boil. Then simmer over low heat for 2 to 4 hours (photo 4). The longer you leave it, the stronger it will be. Skim off any scum that forms (photo 5) every 60 minutes to reduce calories.

Finally, strain the broth (photo 6) and leave it to cool a few hours.

When it is at room temperature, put it in the refrigerator. After about 2-3 hours remove it and skim off the fat layer that will have formed on the surface (photo 7) to give a smoother broth that is easier to digest.

Strain it again with a strainer, or with a thin cloth (photo 8) if you like it very clear.

Cutting the ligaments
1. Cut the ligaments to separate the ham bones.
Beef bone and ribs, ham bones and chicken carcass
2. From left to right: beef bone and ribs, ham bones and chicken carcass.
Vegetables for the broth
3. Cut vegetables.
All the ingredients in the pot
4. All the ingredients in the pot.
Broth scum
5. Skim off the scum every hour.
Straining the broth through a strainer
6. Strain the broth and let it cool to make it easier to remove the fat.
Fat that has risen to the broth's surface
7. Remove the fat that has risen to the surface.
Straining the broth through a thin cloth
8. Strain the broth with a thin cloth to make a very clear soup.

Extra:

If you want a broth with more body, blend it with a beater for 2 minutes.

If you want less fat, add a beaten egg white to the broth about 15 minutes before removing it from the heat.

Add a handful of chickpeas, pasta or rice together with the bones and vegetables to get a smoother texture.

 

Brown stock (for meat stew and sauces)

Brown stock

Ingredients:

The same as for consommé, plus:

  • 1 tomato
  • 200 ml red wine

Preparation:

Prepare exactly the same as the consommé but cook the ingredients (except the wine) in the oven before boiling. This will give a darker color and a slightly roasted flavor.

Place the cut bones in the oven at 180ºC and add the vegetables after 30 minutes. Remove the pan after another 15 minutes and place everything in a pot with cold water and wine.

 

What does Reserva mean when talking about ham?

The term Reserva has two meanings when it comes to ham, either pata negra or serrano. The main and most common meaning is that it has a long maturation in the cellar (bodega). Royal Decree 474/2014 regulates the use of this term, but it’s not really quality assurance (as formerly went under the name Pata Negra a few years ago), since it allows its use with the only condition of a minimum curing period of 12 months (Reserva) or 15 months (Gran Reserva). However, there are few high-end hams that have Reserva in their name: Jamón Joselito Gran Reserva, Jamón Maldonado Reserva Alba Quercus, Jamón El Coto de Galán Gran Reserva).

The use of epithets Jamón Ibérico and Jamón de Bellota, by contrast, is much more regulated and can only be used, respectively, when the pig is Iberian (or crossover) race and when it has been feed on acorns in the pasture.

But in the ham sector we also refer to Reserva as a certain quantity of hams and shoulders that a vendor puts in charge of a producer months or years in advance.

These reserves help farmers and manufacturers to plan and finance vintages, while the merchants not only ensure the stock but can choose the pieces and monitor their progress throughout the maturation process.

Visit from the  staff of IberGour to the Cinco Jotas reserve in Jabugo

Photo 1: Visit from the staff of IberGour to the Cinco Jotas reserve in Jabugo

Cinco Jotas shoulders in the Jabugo cellars at the IberGour reserve

Photo 2: Cinco Jotas shoulders in the Jabugo cellars at the IberGour reserve

Cinco Jotas cellars

Photo 3: Labels identify the reserves of each merchant in the cellar

Normally, a company – IberGour, for example – reserves hams when they have already had a year or so of curation. From then, they begin to pay monthly, so they aren’t paid at once but in instalments over two years.

This system has a major drawback: it is difficult to predict falls in demand 2 or 3 years in advance due to economic crisis or the evolution of competition. Thus, a store or a restaurant can be found with a collection of hams they have been paying off for several years and finally cannot sell at the expected price.

Ham and Hypertension: 6 Tricks to Not Have to Say Goodbye to Pata Negra Ham

The first result you get when you ask Google how to prevent high blood pressure is “To help manage your blood pressure, you should limit the amount of sodium (salt) that you eat”. Does this mean that we have to cut out ham from our diet once we reach a certain age? The answer depends on the individual (or on the attention you pay to your doctor), but here are a few tricks worth trying before cutting it out for health reasons (hear, hear).

1. Eat less

As an adult, ham is a luxury, like chocolate, for example. In other words, it does not provide any essential nutrients or ones that cannot be obtained from other, less salty, foods. It gives us pleasure, which is no small thing, but we can completely do without it. Therefore, the first thing you can do is eat less of it. As discussed in a previous article, experts recommend eating cured ham no more than 2 or 3 times a week.

You can buy sliced ham or shoulder in 100 g packages, which makes it easier to practice portion control than having the whole ham in the kitchen, which seems like it’s telling you, “Come on, cut and serve yourself a little ham, I’m just sitting here”.

2. Switch to bellota ham

You can take what you save by eating less and use it to buy higher-quality ham. Bellota ham has less salt and healthier fat than serrano ham, so you’re killing two birds with one stone.

3. Cut back on salt in other foods

One idea I got from my parents is that on the day they have ham, they add less or no salt to other parts of the meal such as salad, fish, soup, etc. This way, they don’t exceed the recommended amount for that day.

Just like when you have lentils for the first course, you eat something low in protein for the second course, you can choose foods that have less salt and fat. Fortunately, all the packages now list the percentage of sodium per 100 grams.

4. Eat it with foods rich in potassium

This mineral counteracts some of the harmful effects of salt on blood pressure and is present in citrus (oranges), grapes, carrots, potatoes, spinach, etc.

5. Don’t smoke and drink less alcohol and coffee

Ham pairs perfectly with drinks such as beer. Beer has a much lower alcohol content than wine, which is what typically accompanies Iberian Jamon Pata Negra.

Tobacco and coffee, besides potentially causing sudden increases in blood pressure, are natural enemies of ham: They overpower its flavor and aroma.

6. Exercise

Let ham be the prize for that time spent at the gym or that walk through the park that is slightly longer than usual. Both your arteries and your taste buds will thank you.

On the other hand, the demonization of salt as it relates to hypertension has often been questioned in recent years. It seems that “if you have hypertension, moderate your salt intake” is a very simplistic view and that the reality is much more complex, as explained in detail in this article (in Spanish) and in another article of The Guardian.

In all seriousness, it’s worth taking note of this advice and keep enjoying pata negra ham, which has many benefits for your mind and body. It is a source of happiness and especially during the holidays, a big part of our culture.

Yield of a Pata Negra ham: is there too much fat?

You start cutting into a Pata Negra ham and all you seem to get is fat and more fat. You look at the plate and calculate that there’s already about a kilo there… £50 or £60 destined straight for the bin. It’s not a good start.

Order in which to cut a ham and excess fat

At last, the first streaks of meat appear. Their glossy shine gets your saliva glands working, and when you finally eat the first slices you start seeing things differently.

But is there really too much fat in acorn-reared ham? Has it always been like this?

Why does Pata Negra Ham contain more fat now than it used to?

There are 3 reasons behind the increase in external fat in acorn-reared (bellota) Iberico ham:

  1. Purity of the breed: The current trend is to use the more pure-bred animals for the high-end range. They produce better quality meat and enjoy more substantial official protection (only hams from 100% Iberian pigs can be called Pata Negra). But these pigs are characterized by significant fat stores in the outer part of the muscle, while the intramuscular streaks are much finer than in Duroc pigs.
  2. Longer curing times: The widespread consumption of Iberico ham is a very recent phenomenon – since just 15 or 20 years ago. As José Bello Gutiérrez says in his book Jamón curado: Aspectos científicos y tecnológicos [Cured Ham: Scientific and Technological Aspects], during the last quarter of the 20th century it was more common to eat Serrano ham from white pigs nourished on fodder and bred deliberately to minimize fat. It wasn’t just a question of price. People also thought it was healthier, even if it meant reducing the organoleptic quality of the product. As a consequence, the ham we normally ate during the 20th century was cured for no more than 1 or 2 years and was very lean.
  3. Salt reduction: Consumers (especially in Europe) want products with low salt content. It improves the flavour and is much healthier. But when salt levels are reduced, other elements need to be introduced to protect the ham from organisms that could make it go off. For example, improving sanitary conditions and ensuring cold chain guarantees (crucial during the first months of curing).
    Several studies (for example Gou, 1998) have shown that fat slows down the penetration of salt into the middle of the ham because salt diffuses less well than through fat than lean meat. So, the more fatty tissue the ham has, the longer it will take for the salt to reach the meat. Unfortunately, most of the fat will be inedible because it will have oxidized and turned rancid over the years.
    Finally, the ham’s own sweat helps: the external fat impregnates all the surface pores as it melts, forming a protective film.

    Moreover, as we explained in a previous article, the fat masks the salty flavour, so the more fat there is, the less we can taste the salt.

Other products with a similar yield

Acorn-reared ham yields roughly 40-45% meat. That means that of a £500 ham, around £300 will end up in the bin. That might seem like a lot, but it’s similar to the yield of other common consumer products like sole (40%), mussels (35%) or nuts (45%).

Weight of nuts with and without shells

Do big hams contain a higher proportion of meat?

Yes, they do. That’s why restaurants tend to prefer larger hams of more than 8 or 9 kg.

The reason is that the weight of the bone, the hoof, the skin and the external fat is basically the same for large and small hams. Larger hams are from pigs that put on more weight, but their underlying skeleton is very similar.

But be careful: sometimes that extra weight isn’t because the pig was allowed to eat acorns for longer, but because it was fed on fodder. That means the product is lower quality. In the industry this is known as remate (finishing) and, as you’d expect, it is not permitted by the current law regulating Ibérico ham (formerly it was permitted for hams classified as Recebo, meaning fed on fodder and acorns).

Is Bellota ham produced outside of the Iberian peninsula?

Page from the calendar of the Très Riches Heures (November: pigs eating acorns)
Page from the calendar of the Très Riches Heures (month of November: scene in which pigs are eating acorns in the forest)
©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjZda

In practice we can see that jamón de bellota is only produced in Spain and Portugal, but this has not always been the case and perhaps it won’t be in the future either.

Pigs are eating acorns in the forests bordering the Mediterranean Sea long before it was domesticated by humans. The oaks in drier region and the cork trees and oaks in wetter areas were very common until a couple of centuries ago.

In Homer’s Odyssey, the goddess and sorceress Circe turned Ulysses’ companions into swine and fed them acorns, which suggests that in Ancient Greece pigs were fed on the fruit of the oak.

In the 15th century, a famous manuscript called “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry”, written in the central France, used a scene in which pigs are eating acorns in the forest (see the reproduction on the left) to illustrate the month of November. It’s a work by the painter Jean Colombre, dated between 1485 and 1486.

Marco, a reader of this blog, informs us that currently in France there are small amounts of pigs that feed on acorns on the island of Corsica and the department of Hautes Pyrénées and bordering regions near the Aragon Pyrenees.

Those in Corsica come from an autochthonous breed called Nustrale (or U Porcu Neru), a small and shaggy dark animal bred in freedom for nearly 2 years and also fed with chestnuts.

In the Pyrenees there is the black pig Bigorre (of the Gasconne breed), which was on the brink of extinction in the late 20th century. Our Pata Negra also went through a similar time of uncertainty during the 1970s.

Lower Franconia is a region in the state of Bavaria (Germany) where they have begun to recover the old ways of grazing pigs and feeding them acorns. What began as a pilot scheme in 2003 has become reality in the EICHELSCHWEIN® GmbH company (literally “Acorn Pigs, Inc.”). The German jamón de bellota with an 18 month curing period sells for €65/kg, in line with the cost of a Organic Iberian Bellota Ham from Jabugo.

Italy is one of the largest cured ham producers, but according to Giovanni Ballarini, President of the Italian Academy of Cuisine in the 12th century they stopped feeding pigs with acorns and other fruits of the forest and began intensive breeding in stables.

However, after seeing the success and acceptance of Spanish Iberico ham, various producers in southern Italy (Naples, Sicily) are reviving ancient indigenous breeds related to Iberian pigs. The most prominent example is the Prosciutto Crudo di Maiale Nero Siciliano Monti Nebrodi, made from pigs bred in freedom and fed with chestnut and acorns in mountainous pastures of northern Sicily.

In Morocco, on the northern slopes of the Atlas, it’s also easy to find oaks and forest similar to Iberian pastures. The tree bark is used in making dyes for clothes (one of the main economic activities of the country) and acorns can be purchased in local markets for human consumption. Muslims do not eat pork and therefore there are no ham manufacturers there today, but if the demand for this product is still increasing we shouldn’t rule out that some producers will begin using this part of Africa to fatten their stock.

 

Overseas Serrano Ham

Recently there has been several news stories concerning cured ham production in China and warned that the ham curing industry could suffer a similar relocation which has already taken place in other industries.

It is no secret that Asians are jamón enthusiasts. They have learned the Spanish and Italian techniques and have begun to produce it from white pigs. In a recent article in La Vanguardia, a researcher at the University of Córdoba stated that soon they will begin to use Iberico pigs.

It may not be good news for the producers of jamón de cebo (made from pigs fed with fodder), although right now production in China barely reaches 1% of that of Spain. Manufacturers of Iberian ham can rest easy, because playing such a complex ecosystem as the Mediterranean pasture is very difficult, although the Spanish entrepreneurs behind AcornSeekers claim to have achieved just that in Texas (USA), and expect to flood the American market with fresh meat and “Made in USA” Pata Negra hams.

Why doesn’t a good Pata Negra ham taste salty?

Pata negra ham slices on plateIf you are asked which is saltier, a slice of Iberian jamón de bellota or a crisp? The answer will almost always be the crisp. Moreover, if I ask you to first try a sample of each, the answer wouldn’t change.

The reality is very different: a bag of crisps typically contains 1.5g of salt per 100g of potatoes, while Pata Negra ham contains between 3 to 4.5g per 100g. Even the Serrano ham, which usually doesn’t even reach 5% salt content, seems significantly saltier than Bellota ham despite it having only slightly more salt.

Another example: seawater has a salinity of about 3.5%, but it seems much saltier than jamón.

What masks the salt?

The marbling fat and protein deserve credit in this case. As everyone knows, Iberian ham has a lot of fat marbling, which means the white streaks in the slice. If it’s also Bellota, the fat will melt in the mouth and inundate our taste buds. Thus, our taste buds will be concentrated on the fat and stop being so sensitive to the salt (the sodium of the salt, to be exact).

On the other hand, during the 3 or 4-year maturation period of a good Pata Negra, the salt combines with meat protein, reducing its impact on the taste buds.

Whereas Jamón de bellota seems sweet, it actually doesn’t have much less salt than Serrano ham. You should always follow the recommendations of experts not to consume cured ham more than 2 or 3 times a week, the equivalent to between 100 and 150g, and thus will not reach 15% of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) by WHO (World Health Organisation). We can raise this amount if we moderate our consumption of salt in other foods such as salads and soups, for example. Worth the sacrifice, right?

Swineherds of Iberian pig

Although traditionally pigs have always been reared in pens of a few square metres, zones with an abundance of acorns have also been very common grazing areas for pigs in the fall, coinciding with the falling of the fruit of the oak.

It was an inexpensive way to fatten the animals. There were thousands of hectares of pastures in Extremadura, the north of Andalucía (Huelva, Córdoba, Sevilla) and the south of Castilla y León (Salamanca, Ávila), some municipally owned (communal) and others private, but they offered the right to graze for very little money.

In fact, the existence of large tracts of oak forests is what has allowed the Iberian breed, the Pata Negra pig, not to become extinct. It is the breed of pig best adapted to the environment: agile, strong, able to travel long distances, go up and down hills, with substantial amounts of fat to survive the cold mountains of around 1,000 meters altitude. Most of the more commonly produced white pigs wouldn’t survive, so in these areas the Indigenous Iberian breeds resided.

Herding in current times

The swineherd (also called caregiver) has to control all the animals on a daily basis and identify any problems such as illness, boar attacks, or the quality and quantity of acorns and grass. They need to be extremely familiar with the farm (although it has hundreds of hectares) and know exactly to which areas he or she has to lead the animals. First, when pigs are still thin and agile, they will be led to higher altitudes. Later on in life they will stay on the plain.

Iberian pigs in a dehesa in Extremadura

Iberian pigs been herded from one area to another in a pasture on the border of Spain and Portugal.

The period of time the Iberian pig spend in the field (the montanera) is the most critical of the whole process of making a jamón de bellota. For 2, 3 or even 4 months, the pig must stay healthy and eat at a steady pace: not too much, not too little. If you overeat you lose mobility and develop excess fat. You don’t want it to walk a lot, let alone climb hills. The pig will just lie on the grass or mud until hungry again.

On the other hand, if a type of disease is not detected early enough it may affect the animal in a way that would make it lose hunger and consequently weight. And if when during recovery there aren’t enough acorns then there will be no choice but to feed and fatten them with fodder and its eventual market price will drop significantly. In addition there is also the risk of the epidemic spreading to the rest of the herd in just a few days.

Swineherd of Iberic pigs on a tractor

Swineherd of Iberic pigs and caretaker of the pasturelands during the 2011 montanera period.

Unlike the shepherds and goatherds, during the montanera pig keepers will often go motorized. They don’t spend time with the animals, nor are they with them while they eat. They only look for them and lead them to the grazing area where they are to spend the day, and usually won’t find them again until sunset. The rest of the time is spent mainly on maintenance of the farm, such as repairing roads and hundreds of kilometres of stone walls that separate the grazing areas. It’s also critical to keep the pasture free of weeds and shrubs, which provide shelter to the vermin and other inhabitants of the pasture.

Pigs, unless they are very hungry, aren’t at all dangerous. They are more fearful of humans and usually don’t approach us. However, all swineherds tell the same story to children: that in his village a child entered a pigsty and pigs left nothing, not even the bones. It’s the gory version of what is officially called the Manual of Labour Risks and incidentally is much more convincing.

The additives in Pata Negra ham

Until recently, what worried consumers most was the salt content of cured ham. WHO (World Health Organisation) recommends consuming a maximum of 5 grams per day (even less in children and adolescents) to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, although the world average of between 9 and 12g is more than double.

These days it seems that other additives used by most manufacturers generate more fear or distrust in consumers: preservatives, antioxidants, acidity regulators … This article will try to explain why they are used and what the associated health risks are.

Salt

Salt jar
Salt (photo by Gregory Bourolias)

Salt is the oldest known preservative and without it meat would rot. It’s also a flavour enhancer: we tend to find that ham with less than 2.5% salt is tasteless and with an unpleasant texture.

Pata negra ham (jamón ibérico) has the least salt content of them all (between 2.5% to 4.5%). It’s followed by Serrano ham (5%), Bayonne ham (5.5%) and Parma ham (5.7%). Credit goes to genetics in this case: the marbling fat and higher pH level in Iberico hams hinders the penetration of the salt.

When compared with other types of products, it would be at the same level as Roquefort cheese or olives.

As we mentioned in the introduction, it’s been proven that excess salt increases the risk of cardiovascular disease (hypertension, heart attacks, etc.) but it’s also thought to cause kidney failure and osteoporosis.

Preservatives

The most commonly used preservatives are potassium nitrate (E-250) and sodium nitrite (E-252). Nitrates and nitrites have been used for hundreds of years and play an important role in ensuring the microbiological safety (especially protecting consumers from botulism) of foodstuffs.

The European Food Safety Agency limits the maximum amount of sodium nitrite to 100mg/kg and potassium nitrate to 150mg/kg (Directive 2006/52 /EC). It is such a low amount that the formation of potentially carcinogenic nitrosamines is negligible. Furthermore, jamón isn’t a product that has to be cooked, so that the high temperatures needed to display said compound (130ºC) wouldn’t be reached. In this sense a much more dangerous meat would be, for example, bacon, as it is a product with a short maturation period and cooked at high temperatures (150-190°C).

These two compounds, in addition to protect us from certain bacteria, also influence the colour and aroma. The meat becomes slightly redder and the smell of curing overpowers any rancid aromas.

Almost all producers use one, or both, of these preservatives with some exceptions being Joselito hams and the organic hams (also known as ecological). This commitment to the elimination of additives requires them to exercise extreme control of the curing process, especially during the first 3 months, which is when there is more risk of microbiological contamination. On the other hand, these pieces tend to have a longer maturation period of between six months to a year. The more dehydrated the ham, the harder it is for bacteria to grow.

The effect on the colour is not essential in the case of Iberian ham, as the high content of zinc in this type of meat is the main guarantor of its reddish coloration, and so it doesn’t need the coloration effects of the preservatives.

However, in Italy they have eliminated all additives in Parma ham and San Daniele for quite some time now (except salt, of course). And in Switzerland the use of sodium nitrite (E-252) is not allowed under any circumstances.

Antioxidants

Sodium ascorbate (E-301) is often added to reduce the adverse effects caused by preservatives, as it reduces the generation of nitrosamines. It’s considered harmless, but consuming more than 10mg per day can cause diarrhoea and kidney stones.

Acidifiers

Sodium citrate (E-331-iii) is completely harmless and there are no set daily limits on how much is safe to ingest. It serves to regulate the pH (acidity) and to strengthen the role of antioxidants.

Sugar (or lactose, which is the sugar found in milk)

Although often used in sausages, it’s rarely used in ham and serves to mask the bitter, stale notes.

In short, the most harmful additive used in ham is salt. If we were to share an 80g serving with one other person, we will have ingested between 1 and 2g of salt, which is between 20% and 40% of the recommended daily amount, more or less the same as if we were to eat 125g of bread (half a baguette, for example). What can I say? I would rather stop eating bread and eat a whole tapa of Pata Negra ham.

11 reasons for the Price difference in Bellota hams

We can find Iberian jamón de bellota for less than €40/kg and for more than €400/kg. It’s a huge difference which is not justified solely by the quality of the final product, but a combination of different factors.

1. Breed

Better quality Pata Negra hams come from 100% Iberian pigs, which cost to raise is significantly higher than cross-breeds. They fatten a lot slower, they produce smaller hams and the litters are smaller in number.

2. Food on the farm

Iberian pigs on a farm
Iberian pigs on a farm, a few days before going to the pasture to start the montanera period (free-range grazing)

From weaning until it is driven to the mountain, the animal spends a few months on a farm, where it is fed on a diet of fodder. The pig can’t go from drinking the milk of its mother one day to eating acorns the next; it needs time to adapt. One example is what we do with human babies. Once they stop weaning we slowly begin to introduce baby food (cereals and fruit), alternating them with a bottle. This goes on for several weeks until the baby is ready to try other foods such as fish and meat, and later on dried fruits and nuts, etc.

Returning to animal food, there are many prices that are dependent on the quality of the raw material and the combination of cereals and other nutrients in the formula.

3. Age and weight on entering the montanera phase

The law sets minimum conditions for the age and weight to be able to label a ham “de bellota”:

  • The weight on beginning the montanera phase should be between 92 and 115 kg.
  • During the montanera phase they should be fattened at least 46 kg on a diet of acorns and grass.
  • The minimum age at slaughter is 14 months.
  • The minimum individual carcass weight (after removal of the skin, head and viscera) is 115 kg, except for 100% Iberian animals, in which case the minimum is 108 kg.

Thus, a producer who meets the minimum legal requirements is able to sell hams with a lower production cost than those who are significantly above the threshold, at the expense of quality, of course.

4. Duration of the montanera period

The Royal Decree 4/2014 rules that the pig must spend a minimum of 2 months in the pasture, but there are farmers who extend this by 1 or 2 months, or more. In some cases pigs are given 2 montanera periods. That is, when acorn season is over, they are brought back to the farm until the next season, when they will eat more acorns again.

The longer the montanera period is, the more acorns are eaten and the more exercise undertaken, and so the Pata Negra will be of a higher quality. But this comes with a cost: the shepherds and vets must work more, and the number of casualties among the pigs rises as a result of illness, theft or attacks from other wildlife that inhabit the mountain. Furthermore, the jamón will need more months of maturation, because the quality of the fat would be higher and so the oxidation would be slower.

5. Quality of the montanera

Iberian pigs eating acorns in the pasture
Iberian pigs eating acorns in the pasture

It’s not the fair to put 50 pigs in a pasture of 500 hectares, the same as you would put 100 in the same amount of space. They’d get half the amount of acorns.

Naturally the law limits the density of animals per square metre, and the density of oaks. Therefore manufacturers need to hire an inspection company to certify that their pastures are compliant. But even within the legal limits there are some producers who are closer to the minimum than others.

The quality and quantity of acorns is not the same at all times nor in all pastures. Pigs are very selective and will find the best acorns first, the biggest and sweetest, which are the major contributors to the overall quality of the hams and sausages.

6. Organic vs. Conventional

Undoubtedly one of the aspects that most influences the final price is the condition of organic ham. The limitation in pharmacological treatments raises the mortality of pigs, the absence of preservatives makes many hams spoil before being sold and the cost of the feed is much higher. We must also add the costs of certification and control of the authorities.

Production of organic Iberico ham in Spain is negligible; we only have half a dozen small producers.

7. Maturation period

Hams curing in the cellar
Hams curing in the cellar

A Jamón de bellota loses between 8% and 10% of its weight each year that it’s hanging in the cellar (between 7% and 9% in the shoulders). Basically what you lose is water. Thus, if the sale comes within 2 years instead of 3, we can reduce its price by about 10% while maintaining the same margin.

Not surprisingly the quality is not the same. One extra year of maturation brings new aromas, a more intense flavour and easier cutting.

8. Salt

Excess salt, besides being harmful to health also hides a lot of the flavours of ham. Consumers tend to prefer sweeter and softer Iberian hams, especially in recent times.

But what happens if we fall short of salt? Well, two things can happen:

  1. The meat contaminates and rots (salt is the main preservative), or
  2. The muscle tissue loses consistency and flavour. It’s what people in the business call jamón chicloso (gummy ham).

Thus, those manufacturers who strive to minimize the concentration of salt to get better tasting hams know they will have to throw out some pieces. Consequently, they’ll have to sell the others at a higher price to compensate for these losses.

9. Brand

Prestige, exclusivity and advertising campaigns have a direct effect on the selling price.

In 2006 Cárnicas Maldonado launched a special series of €1500 hams called Alba Quercus (renamed Albarragena). Others followed such as Joselito with his Vintage series at €2000 and Jamones Premium by Arturo Sánchez at €4.000… Logically the series don’t last very long; the hams are really good but the price per kg hardly justifies the final quality. In fact, they are often instruments for marketing campaigns.

On the other hand, manufacturers with strong brands know that customers are willing to pay a little more for the security that comes with their name and reputation.

10. Commerce

A ham of the same brand can be found at very different prices between one store and another. Not everyone works with the same margins. It’s also possible to lower the price of the ham but end up paying for the service: high delivery costs, very restrictive return policy, poor customer service…

The country where the trade is largely determines the final price. Some manufacturers require sellers to buy the product to the official importer only, and therefore the prices are usually much higher than in its place of origin or in a more competitive environment.

11. Time of year in which the purchase is made

The price of ham is usually quite stable throughout the year, although there may be periods of shortages that drive up the price. It happens, for example, when a manufacturer has exhausted the pieces of a campaign and the next lot are still a little tender.

Umami: the taste of something indescribably delicious, like Pata Negra

More than one would draw a blank when challenged to explain Iberian ham, what it tastes like and what it can be compared with to somebody unfamiliar with it. If asking an ordinary citizen to describe its flavour following his gustatory experience, the safest would be to make reference to the lightly salty touch, to cured meat and to nuts. And it would fall short; it would be vague and incomplete. In this explanation it’s difficult to define the nuances that would be lost on those not particularly used to it. Because, what do you really know about Pata Negra? What makes it so tasty and long-lasting on the palate?

Our whole lives we have been taught in school that the four flavours are sweet, salty, sour and bitter. However, in the early twentieth century the Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda identified a new concept which he called umami (literally, “delicious taste” in Japanese). This new flavour, unclassifiable as any of the other four, is closely related to the presence of certain amino acids in food: glutamic acid and ribonucleic. The combination of both in foods and recipes also helps to enhance the flavour of the ingredients that compose them. Umami is found in foods such as kombu seaweed, tomatoes, mushrooms, Parmesan, salted anchovies or cured meat.

Picture of Kikunae Ikeda Picture of a pata negra ham being sliced

Kikunae Ikeda (photo from Wikipedia) summarized the taste of jamón de bellota in one word.

Molecular theories aside, the named “fifth taste” is characterized by prolonging the pleasant aftertaste and producing salivation. It would come to be something as abstract and sensory as the impression of the exquisite, the perception of the tasty, a potentiation of good taste, but taste itself. Pata negra ham has had the privilege of being one of the foods listed as umami and thus has become part of the Olympus of flavours. The Ikedia hypothesis, ratified by subsequent studies, gives an acceptable explanation, scientifically speaking, of the king’s unconventional taste of Spanish cuisine.

Perhaps everything has its scientific proof and it’s a matter of pure chemistry, but for those who are not experts in molecular chemistry and live in conceptual ignorance and trust in the truth of our taste buds, we will retain the magic of tasting Iberian jamón de bellota and we experience the inexplicably and unclassifiable delicious taste.

Discover the umami in Iberic and serrano hams of Ibergour.co.uk