If 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.
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?
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 thatthe 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
There are 3 reasons behind the increase in external fat in acorn-reared (bellota) Iberico ham:
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.
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.
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.
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%).
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).
The most famous and recognized worldwide ham producer from Guijuelo just celebrated its 150th anniversary. Six generations have now dedicated themselves to ham processing, even though it didn’t bear the name Joselito for the first 100 years, when the current director’s grandfather realized its growing popularity.
Joselito Ham has its own herd of almost 35,000 pata negra pigs, with a genetic selection that allows the recognition of a cut not yet labeled. Another characteristic is that the company doesn’t use additives, except salt. No artificial colors, preservatives or lactose – just acorn-fed ham and salt.
The company that José Gómez currently runs has opted for internalization, research and development and positioning as luxury items. A success that its competitors have lost no time in trying to duplicate.
To celebrate it, 18 master cutters sliced several Vintage 2011 cuts (cured for more than 7 years) in an event that took place in Madrid’s Teatro Real on October 2, 2018.
It was one of the hams that we first sold at IberGour. We incorporated it into our catalogue at the end of 2006, and we can confidently say that it is a brand that creates loyal customers. In spite of some specific disappointments, the more than 300 opinions that have been sent to us and we have published prove our customers’ love for the jewel of Guijuelo.
We hope to keep processing this exquisite, aromatic ham for another 150 years at least, and that IberGour continues selling it online 😉
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.
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.
It is unusual for a customer to explain why they buy jamón de bellota. We mostly assume it is simply because Pata Negra is great. But there are several customers who have told us that they buy ham because of how little they feel hungry and it helps them to boost their appetite.
For most of us gluttony is a problem, but there are some who need to stimulate their appetite because their lack of appetite causes them important nutritional deficiencies. Some medical treatments, such as chemotherapy to cure cancer, cause nausea and lack of appetite. Also stress, the deficit of some minerals and various digestive disorders are associated with reluctance. There seems that there are even some people with a sense of permanent satiety that makes them hate food.
So we thought it would be interesting to find out the reasons why Iberian ham, and especially de bellota, is so appealing even in adverse conditions. Here are the findings:
Why jamón de bellota increases the appetite
It’s delicious and healthy The first thing recommended to stimulate the appetite is to eat what you like. That is, what you most enjoy. If you have a medical prescription to avoid fatty products, remove the fat and eat only lean. Pure Iberian ham (Pata Negra), such as Cinco Jotas Ham from Jabugo, is usually fattier than ham from mixed breed pigs, but the difference is minimal. However, the level of healthy oleic acid tends to be higher than what is found in mixed breed. Our recommendation: pure bred.
It’s associated with good memories In most of our homes, jamón de bellota, is eaten only during large celebrations: dinners on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, weddings, christenings, communions… The memory of these good moments enjoying a ham in the best company opens up our appetite.
The smell is mild and pleasant Unlike other foods, such as cheese or seafood, the smell of ham is very subtle. Strong odours can sometimes cause rejection, and therefore are not recommended in these cases. So, it is best consumed unheated at room temperature so as to prevent the smell getting stronger. Serrano ham, if it has had a minimum maturation period of 18 months, also has pleasant and toasty aromas. But if the curing period is anything less than 12 months it still smells a little like fresh meat and is not so appetizing.
It doesn’t fill you up because it doesn’t contain fibre Fibre, present above all in vegetables (1.5% in lettuce) and cereals (2.2% in brown rice), is essential for a balanced diet but is very filling (it produces gases) and can be difficult to digest.
The high zinc content helps regulate digestion This mineral is necessary, among other things, to regulate digestion and prevent loss of appetite. It is mainly found in protein-rich foods such as pork, and some seafood.
It’s very quick to prepare Poor appetite coupled with lack of time leads to some people skipping breakfast, lunch or dinner. With ham there are no excuses: you open the fridge, take out a packet with already sliced ham inside. It’s also great for snacking, allowing you to distribute food intake and reduce the size of main meals (some people can’t manage a full plate).
There are other natural remedies that help to ignite your appetite, such as mint infusions, anise or liquorice. There are also medicines and drugs, like those derived from cannabis (marijuana and hashish) which act directly on brain receptors that trigger appetite. But it’s clear that, as delicious as Iberico jamón de bellota is, nothing has been invented so far.
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