By James Bryce
IT is one of Spain’s most prized delicacies and a source of national pride for Spanish foodies looking to show off their country’s cuisine.
And nowhere is the pride for jamon iberico more evident than in its spiritual home, Aracena, and nearby neighbour Jabugo.
Production of the cured ham – also known as pata negra – plays a major role in the region’s economy and there are several reminders of its influence throughout the area.
Not just satisfied with naming a square after the sought-after delicacy, Aracena also has a ham museum and an annual fair in its honour.
And with good reason.
The gourmet product is becoming increasingly popular around the world, in countries including America and China, where demand has rocketed over recent years.
It comes after two companies were finally allowed to market the produce in America, both passing stringent slaughterhouse regulations which have to be met.
Produced from black Iberian pigs and cross-bred pigs, surprisingly jamon iberico only accounts for eight per cent of Spain’s cured-ham production.
The emphasis is firmly on quality over quantity and this is reflected in the prices, which range from 30 euros per kilogram for the lowest quality, to 70 euros per kilogram for the very, very best.
Although the prices may seem excessive, a look at the high level of time and care that goes into the production process soon makes it seem justified.
After being weaned, the piglets spend several weeks being fattened on barley and maize before being released to roam in pasture and oak groves.
Here they feed naturally on grass, herbs, acorns and roots until slaughter, where the ham is salted and left to dry for two weeks.
They are then rinsed and left to dry for another four to six weeks, followed by a curing process that can take anything from 12 to 48 months.
The best quality Iberian ham jamon iberico de bellota is raised on a diet entirely composed of acorns – approximately one pig per hectare – which has been found to make the meat cholesterol free.
The discovery means that jamon iberico is part of that other rare breed – something that not only tastes good but is healthy too.